Back to previous post: Open thread 138

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Amusing Times

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

April 1, 2010

I’ll have what Bruce is having
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:53 PM * 91 comments

It’s been observed many times that the commenters are the best thing about this blog. It’s still and always so. For proof, I direct your attention to this comment of great truth, gentleness and wisdom from the ever-wonderful Bruce Baugh, on the subject of guilt and responsibility:

One of the hardest lessons for me as an adult has been how little foundation there is for any of the versions of basic goodness that prevail in my stratum of American society (white, educated, home to many managers and many entrepreneurs and freelancers - in a word, bourgeois). All of the political ideologies common in this set of communities - liberal, conservative, libertarian, etc. - share the idea that there is a core of the community which, rightly understood, has nothing fundamentally wrong with it, and that social justice begins with building on that pure foundation.

But you know what? It’s not true. There isn’t any scrap of basically pure legacy anywhere in American society. There are some really good ideas, haphazardly implemented, but every single section of American life and practice builds on a foundation that includes theft, murder, pillage, systematic discrimination, unchecked and officially endorsed abuse, and other evils, right up to genocide. There’s no innocent heritage to recover, scrape off, and use as a starting point. Anything that could be called fundamentally good and untainted begins ex nihilo, in explicit contradiction to what has come before.

Take the case of someone I know not just disapproved of genocide but joined in war against its practitioners: my dad. Dad never backed a Jim Crow law in his life, nor thought the Native Americans savages fit only for conversion or death, and raised us to believe that equal consideration for equal merit was crucial, and also so basically smart that anyone opposing it had to be making themselves that bit stupid. But I have the life I do now partly because, well-anchored studies show, guys like Dad have always gotten better terms on deals of all kinds than equally talented guys who aren’t white - better mortgages, better job offers, better promotion rates, and so on. So a hard-working talented black or Indian guy my own age and general situation has an uphill struggle all his life that I do not, not because I am an evil-doer but because this is shot through the fabric of life.

Genocide leaves a legacy like that, too. People who would not commit genocide themselves, who would in fact oppose it given the chance, end up benefiting from an allocation of resources - including human labor and creativity - that is what it is because of the actions of those who did choose to wipe out whole communities, and of those who didn’t care whether they wiped out anyone else.

This is really just the principle of contigency that people have talked about in the study of evolution since, well, forever, but that folks like Stephen Jay Gould worked to popularize. We’re not morally responsible for life in an ecosystem with the legacy of extinction and survival we have, but it matters that we live because others perished or survived not just because of merit, but because of luck. The difference in human history, of course, is that human beings do have agency, and even when we’re not conspirators in great crimes ourselves, it’s really important to recognize that we do not inherit innocence or a clean slate, to see what’s actually on the slate as we get it, and act so as to pass it on better than we got it. This is sometimes described as wallowing in guilt, but I don’t think it is any more than facing up to any other body of ignorance, whether it’s the grammar of any language other than our first, or the structure of a logical proof, or the composition of the spaces between stars…or how much our lives turn out to be based on genocide’s rewards.

Comments on I'll have what Bruce is having:
#1 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 03:18 PM:

The percolations of what might as well be called Original Sin (because Original Innocence is just history we don't know about) seem to encourage not thinking about these issues for any length of time.

So thanks.

#2 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 03:31 PM:

Pertinent link: Foundation for Endangered Languages

#3 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 03:31 PM:

One of the most cheering things about the study of human prehistory and history is that we really are, however slowly, getting better.

Cannibalism isn't normative behavior anymore, just for starters.

#4 ::: Mark_W ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 03:47 PM:

Yes, absolutely spot on, and Bruce wins the intertubes. Although he’ll have to share them with Dave Luckett and The Conspriators, and, well, uncountably many others that this particular lurker has enjoyed over the weeks and months and years...

Hooray!, and thank you all...

#5 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 03:49 PM:

It's true, Graydon.

Another lesson: "We are making progress" and "The hell with this, it's time to get some decent living right now" are both entirely valid, very important reactions to the imperfection that always prevails. It takes both, in equal measure, and preferably at full intensity, to get anywhere, as nearly as I can tell.

#6 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 03:52 PM:

"This is really just the principle of contigency that people have talked about in the study of evolution since, well, forever"

will no one remember the victims of the triassic extinction event?

first they came for the trilobites, and i did not speak up because i was not a trilobite.

#7 ::: Jim ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 04:20 PM:

You don't get a better picture looking behind the curtain on other cultures, either. But like Graydon said, we've cut back on the cannibalism. Slavery is on the downslope, too.

#8 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 04:26 PM:

I think the best part of the study of history is that it counters the popular notion that right now, things are horrendous. After all, I'm warm, I'm fed, and I can buy things that kings could never have dreamed of.

#9 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 04:30 PM:

However, latest research and study tends to agree there is more slavery right now, this minute, across the globe, than ever before in history.

Many places are rapidly returning to the conditions of, oh, say, late republican Rome, when livings, i.e. jobs, were so hard to find, that people enrolled themselves and their families, or members of their families voluntarily into the rolls of slaves.

These days this condition is due to what is called 'surplus population,' the privatization of what traditionally have been public spaces (i.e. like the enclosure of the Commons in the British Isles leading up to and post the Industrial Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries) and, again, lack of living wage jobs and agriculture.

Love, c.

#10 ::: Erf ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 04:36 PM:

D. Potter @1: I made the "Original Sin" connection, too. It's always seemed kind of a weird concept that (in my experience) is rarely well explained, or else feels extremely archaic: we're all born tainted with the sins of our ancestors.

Well, this is an excellent explanation of at least of one aspect of that. (It doesn't apply to the oppressed, obviously, but for those of us from a privileged background I think this is an important part of the idea.)

Thank you, Bruce!

#11 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 04:50 PM:

Bruce's comment is true, and it's important to recognize. And yet....

It's true that there is no piece of land whose title deed doesn't have some splatters of blood on it, if you go back far enough. Similarly, there is no family, no business, no nation, no tribe, no church, without bloodstained hands in its ancestry and stolen goods squirreled away in the attic somewhere.

And yet, I have seen this argument used, many times, to justify turning a blind eye to current evil, or to simply abandoning current moral standards.

If no property has a legitimate title (because everything was ultimately stolen, if you go back far enough), then why can't I take this from you? Why isn't all property going forward up for grabs?

If every nation is built on land that was ethnically cleansed of some previous bunch of inhabitants, then why shouldn't we go ahead and ethnically cleanse this particular bunch of annoying inhabitants so we can have this particular land we want? (I've seen this argument turn up in almost exactly this form. See Stirling's _Conquistador_ for a non-controversial form.)

#12 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 05:07 PM:

Constance @9:

I suspect that depends a great deal on what legal (or extra-legal) arrangements you call slavery and which you don't. For example the site you link to says that there are roughly 27 million slaves in the world today, but Russia in the mid 19th century had 49 million serfs who had some measure of self-rule, but could be sold and bought by their masters and had no legal recourse against any abuse by their owners.

None of this is to minimize the suffering and awfulness of modern slavery, just to point out that arguing that there are more slaves now than there have ever been involves defining slavery in a way that excludes the vast majority of people in history who suffered under legalized regimes of forced servitude.

#13 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 05:08 PM:

I'm tapped out by personal load. If someone else would carry on I'd be much obliged.

#14 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 05:12 PM:

Bruce @13:

You've said a good thing. Trust the community to explore it and extend it and work with it.

Thank you.

#15 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 05:30 PM:

Rereading my post and the end of the Kristallnacht thread I'm tempted to coin Wand's Axiom of Russian History:

No matter how horrible any given event or phenomenon in history is, something equally bad or worse has occurred in Russia.

#16 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 05:33 PM:

albatross, #11: I think it's more important to turn your argument around. Yes, these things were done and can't be changed. But doesn't that leave us with the moral imperative not to do the same going forward? We are BETTER than that. We are aware (or should be aware) of all the ways in which we benefit from the sins of our ancestors. We have the choice to repudiate those sins rather than perpetuate them.

By which I do not mean giving up everything we own and taking up the lifestyle of a hermit. (Although some people do that, for reasons that seem good to them, and who am I to argue against it?) I mean not perpetuating racist stereotypes, and treating people like people no matter what they look like, and giving back to the community when you can -- all of the community, not just the part that looks and talks like you. And I mean speaking out against the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, which is often the harder task.

#17 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 05:47 PM:

I just want to note that Camus addressed Albatross' question at length in The Rebel and that it is one of my favorite books.

#18 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 06:15 PM:

This is an odd coincidence: I just read Mike Resnick's 1994/1995 Hugo/Nebula award winner Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge yesterday, and then I find Bruce's comment today. The theme of both is very similar. (I don't want to expound further for fear of spoiling the reading pleasure of those who haven't read it, either in a long time or at all.)

#19 ::: Jason Stackhouse ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 06:24 PM:

Thank you, Bruce. You've given me something to think about, today.

#20 ::: Dan ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 06:37 PM:

By the way, if any of you are hearing anything like Bruce Baugh is saying in your churches, Glenn Beck wants you leave that church. 'Cause, ya know, all this social justice stuff, it's not really about original sin, it's just communism or Nazism.

#21 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 07:29 PM:

Dan, #20: That's encouraging -- Christian leaders speaking up to denounce a Republican demagogue! I wish it happened more often.

#22 ::: Sam Clark ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 07:35 PM:

Thanks, Bruce Baugh: that's both right and important. I'll note, with my teacher hat on, that the fundamental thought about luck has also been explored by a number of twentieth-century political philosophers, starting with John Rawls and continuing e.g. with Brian Barry.

#23 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 07:45 PM:

Sam: I owe a lot to Rawls and to responses to him, and more recently also by listening to a bunch of Searles lectures and arguing back with my iPod. :) I've also been chewing on a lot of links from the folks at, and things like Michael Berube's writing about disability and moral status in light of his son's life with Down syndrome...all kinds of philosophical and economic and other thinking in the mix with history.

#24 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 07:46 PM:

I should do up a comment with links, when I mend a bit more from the day's distractions.

#25 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 08:23 PM:

Bruce Baugh #23: arguing back with my iPod

Now there's a 21st Century Moment for you. In my case, I no longer rail against my dearly departed 90 lb CRT TV set, since I now get that particular information feed through my triple-duty video monitor, which is hooked up to the tuner of my decade-old DVD player. A single-tasking TV set is no longer an effective use of resources for me.

#26 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 08:27 PM:

Earl, I have a feeling like we're slipping into Alfred Bester territory here, or possibly John Brunner, with notional maps of potential information density and response bandwidth.

This is not a complaint.

#27 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 08:55 PM:

In 1850, John Stuart Mill said that we have rid the world of so much pain and suffering that what remains seems so much more horrible to us. If only that were true.

#28 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 10:43 PM:

Chris W #15:

Wand's Axiom of Russian History: No matter how horrible any given event or phenomenon in history is, something equally bad or worse has occurred in Russia.

And this actually points up some of the causes both of the problems, and their improvement: As I understand it, "The Problem With Russia" is, and always was, that they were resource-poor -- lousy farmland, a helluva continental effect (that is, weather), they sometimes haven't even had a warm-water port....

The thing is, that regardless of the "official" reasons for both wars and "oppressive attacks" on populations, a lot of them have their real impetus coming from competition for limited resources -- water, land, fuel, raw materials, labor -- sometimes even "treasure" (gold, diamonds, and the like).

That's why Russia's history is so nasty -- but it's also why things are getting better in a lot of places, because successive technologies have allowed both exploitation of new resources, and more efficient use of the available resources. The problem with that pattern, is that the new technologies generally require cooperation on successively larger scales, and if that cooperation breaks down, so does the prosperity depending on it.

#29 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2010, 11:54 PM:

My axiom of Haitian history: things can always get worse.

Before Rawls, contingency was an important term for the Pragmatists, like C. S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, George H. Mead, and so on.

#30 ::: Leroy F. Berven ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 12:09 AM:

David Harmon @ 28:

Nitpick: Russia has enormous natural resources -- a wide range of minerals, timber, water (much of it exploitable for huge amounts of hydropower), vast tracts of fertile soil, and so forth -- exploitable at each of several levels of development. What Russia hasn't had is any large fraction of these resources being easily exploitable using the very lowest levels of technology and -- especially -- economic infrastructure.

Once the most basic levels of the relevant production technologies and transportation systems were in place within Russia, these tools made massive exploitation of the country's immense natural resources relatively easy, and thus pretty much inevitable. Getting these basics in place, though, was the real problem. Until they were operational, a country hugely rich in resources (most of which had only modest barriers to development, by modern standards) could appear to be resource-poor . . . which is what I think you may have meant to say.

#31 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 12:28 AM:

Russia's also had absolutely horrible destruction five times last century: German invasion in WW I, the Russian Civil War afterwards, Stalin killing the cleverest and most productive part of the economy, Hitler just trying to kill everyone, and the Brezhnev kleptocracy. Every time it looks like they get the economic machine going, someone shows up and breaks it again.

They're better off than a lot of African countries, but that isn't a very high standard.

#32 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 12:32 AM:

I think Bruce Baugh makes a damn fine point, that Lee @ 16 pushes home. We as humans do have agency, and the responsibility for our acts. The past doesn't need to be a straitjacket that constrains us to do what we've always done; in fact if we are to fully exercise the powers we have as humans to analyze our lives and the forces that engage us we must look at what has gone before and use it to map a better path.

It's interesting that Bruce mentioned John Brunner in #26: Brunner instigated a lot of my thoughts on this subject many years ago when I read "Born Under Mars". In that book, Brunner makes the argument that every human culture in each generation has both the right and the responsibility to decide how to raise its next generation to be compatible with its view of the proper objectives and means of human society. I extrapolate that somewhat to make the observation that every generation of humans has, metaphorically, been "raised by wolves".

That is to say, no one knows what a human being is capable of, given full knowledge of their potential. We have, all along, been raised by parents who knew more or less about what we might be able to do, but still probably far less than is possible. Consider the difference between what a feral dog or pack of dogs is capable of, and what a dog or pack raised and trained by a competent human trainer can do. I think those same kinds of differences can exist in humans, and I don't think we can know what those differences are until we try to raise humans to the highest standards we can use.

There are reasons I find to believe that human society has worked better, and been more robust against chaotic and destructive forces as cruelty and the abuse of the Other have declined in the world. That's gratifying to me because I prefer to live in such a world, but it's also encouraging to me that that kind of world is becoming more likely over time.

#33 ::: Lawrence ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 12:36 AM:

Friend of mine who used to be in the foreign service (and is now in intelligence) once explained why he'd gotten interested in Africa. It was because, he said, anything that can ever go wrong in human society has gone wrong more often, and worse, in Africa than anywhere else.

He devoted the first half of his career to trying to figure out why.

#34 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 04:41 AM:

Three quick points:

1. Life in the past was AWFUL.

2. Life now is pretty crap for a lot of people.

3. Being able to know and understand 1 and 2 is itself a privilege, and perhaps implies a responsibility.

#35 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 09:27 AM:

Fragano #27:

Perhaps as our technology gets better, we have fewer and fewer horrors inflicted on us by an uncaring universe, but as a result, a larger fraction of horrors and hardships is inflicted on us by other humans, either intentionally or as a side effect of pursuing some other goal. (Frex, think of the 1918 flu pandemic, world war one, and the great depression as illustrations of these categories.)

#36 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 11:53 AM:

Thinking more about Bruce's post (which bears a lot of thinking about), there's a distinction I missed the first time through:

a. There are no existing institutions (of some size and age and power) that don't have some awful crimes somewhere in their history.

b. There are no existing institutions (of some size and age and power) that aren't built, at least partly, on current or very recent, ongoing crime and mistreatment and injustice.

I got (a), but missed (b), which I think is an important part of what Bruce was getting at in his second paragraph. (Please tell me if I'm not right here.)

That is, we Omelas dwellers don't just have to bear up with the idea that there was once a child kept in torment in the basement to build our beautiful city, but that the current city still keeps a child in torment in a basement somewhere. It may even be that we don't know how to build a shining city on a hill that isn't powered by keeping a few children locked in basements. Am I getting your point, Bruce? Since I clearly missed this the first time through, I'm wondering what else I missed.

It *looks* like we're much nicer now than in the past. But maybe that's just because I'm looking at the past through present moral views. Of course slavery was wrong, of course ethnic cleansing and genocide of American Indians was wrong. But we're all better now. And if you'll excuse me, I have to go gas up my Hummer and go to Wal-Mart to buy some stuff, before I go to my job as a prison guard.

A critical question, to my mind, is about the current moral flaws of those institutions we know how to build. Are they inherently flawed, or accidentally flawed? Are they more like plantation slavery (it could be made more or less horrible, but nothing could ever fix its moral flaws other than just getting rid of it), or more like eighteenth century medicine (it killed lots of patients through ignorance, but not because the idea of medicine is fundamentally immoral)?

And what do we do about institutions where we know they're flawed, but have no better alternatives we can think of? Think of mutual assured destruction as a defensive strategy here: against an opponent with 100 nuclear missiles, we flat don't know another way to defend ourselves. And yet, it's hard to imagine a more immoral setup than "let's build the means to murder a hundred million or so people and reduce several hundred million more to starvation and want and illness for generations, and base our security on a credible threat to use those means."

#37 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 11:58 AM:

albatross #35: Mill was thinking specifically of the abolition of slavery and the expansion of political rights in the West as signs of human improvement, when he wrote that. In attacking Thomas Carlyle, who was contending that suffering was eternal and that you just had to brace yourself against it and obey your natural superiors, those heroic enough to not only overcome the misfortunes of the world but tell the rest of us what to do. Especially, in this case, if you happened to be a black person in the West Indies (in which case, you ought to be thrown back into servitude). Mill argued for greater freedom, and the leisure to develop mentally and morally within that greater freedom as the defence against the evils that we can inflict against each other and the means to liberate ourselves from them. This was an early curtain-raiser for his more sustained arguments in On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government.

In my more depressed moods, such as when I have a pile of grading I can't hide from,* I wonder that Mill was too optimistic at the human capability to develop and improve in freedom.

*Leading me to read things like this: "The main goal of the foreign policy plan that was instituted by Bhutan was a ban on all television that influenced other countries; mainly the United States."

#38 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 12:07 PM:

This proves that you can never go back to first causes to prove who is right, or who was wronged. If you go back and look for it you will always find something someone did, or did not do to cause this or that. It becomes a circular argument.

Change in any society is destructive to some group of said society. Most, if not all, of the changes we have seen has been this way. It' the nature of things.

#39 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 12:34 PM:

Albatross: You got it precisely.

And honestly, I don't know what to do about every case. Mostly I'd like to keep being aware that we do routinely make choices to sacrifice present justice and opportunity for some of our neighbors for the sake of other things, or because we find the cost too high, or whatever, and to distinguish between aspirations for universal justice and brotherhood and present reality. I tend to think that good policy arises partly out of a good appreciation of where we're actually standing at the moment.

One thing that I know does matter is making verification and accountability routine. Graydon talks a lot about this stuff, and he's right: systems do what they're set up to, whether you consciously realize it or not, and knowing this, you can choose to know and deal with whether the system is actually delivering anything like justice. We can know a lot more about disparate impacts and their justifications, in much closer to real time, than we do, simply because it's seldom that high a priority in system design. But that's much less a technological constraint than a social one.

#40 ::: Demopoly ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 12:45 PM:

I am pleasantly shocked and surprised at the high quality of responses on this blog, and therefore I am joining up to participate - and not to derail it. ;)

The upswing of apparent mental illness and hatred of the US Government is about as dramatic as the previous 20 years of "The USA is God's Nation". Suddenly, America is now evil? Amazing how quickly that happened, as soon as a Democrat and ethnic minority took office...

Those who now scream about 'big government' were the cheerleaders in the largest government movement of breathtakingly-sweeping 'reforms' to ever make it through Congress.

And, yet, somehow this is all Obama's fault.

Damn him for wanting to spend a single Presidency helping out the middle class and poor. More money for the rich! Enslave the poor! Froth at the mouth! - These are the tones I hear now, clearly ringing out as facts from major news sources.

Case in point is the L.A. Times, dedicatedly obeying its corporate masters when it repeatedly reprints the tired lie of the ACORN pimp scandal - you know, the one where nobody was really dressed as a pimp, and the video was edited? Yeah, that obvious and admitted lie is still dragged through the press as some sort of actual conviction of Acorn as a criminal enterprise.

Their real crime? Helping poor people. Apparently, being actually Christian will totally piss off the Faux Christian Fundies and they'll try to kill you. Great Success! ACORN shut down and the members are heading for a more resilient legal structure. Sad, that honest hard working people have to seek corporate protectionism in order to be good samaritans.

Anyway, ranting aside, hello!

#41 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 12:53 PM:

Wow, Bruce. Bravo.

I am hereby tasking myself to memorize some of this post, so that the next time one of the "Proudly Un-PC" brigade accuses me of indulging in, or pushing on them, "white guilt," I can quote some of this at them. Probably the last paragraph, the bit about reframing what's so often called 'wallowing in guilt.'

(I very much doubt anyone who needs to hear it would follow a link to it, or read it through. Besides, many of these conversations happen face-to-face.)

#42 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 01:09 PM:

Nicole, a comparison I like is to trans-continental travel. If, for instance, it turns out that my drive takes me over more ice than I'd expected, I may have to get snow tires. I may have to change my route. It may turn out that the destination I was thinking of isn't best for what I want, and go up the coast a ways once I get there. It could turn out that I'd been thinking in terms of driving across a county and that getting to where I want to go, the far shore, takes a lot more gas and maintenance even if everything else works.

But I'm still doing what I was originally hoping to - it's just that it turns out to be a greater commitment than I had in mind. It's still worth doing, as long as I update my actions in light of new information.

A just, equitable society is like that. Turns out that there's a whole lot more to do than many of us in the privileged center had the slightest clue about. But our original hope was good! And we should get on it!

#43 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 01:19 PM:

Larry @38 Change in any society is destructive to some group of said society. Most, if not all, of the changes we have seen has been this way. It' the nature of things.

You can respond to this in multiple ways, though, some of which are more productive than others. You can shrug and say, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs," and thus rationalize continuation of a system where those that has, gets. You can remain stuck in "he started it!" cross-accusations and never move on (or deteriorate further). You can hunker down and do nothing at all since everything causes further damage (but of course, deciding to do nothing is also a decision). Or, you can do your best to minimize the costs and maximize the benefits, and, when you get it wrong, to do better next time. But that, of course, requires nuance of debate that is not well suited to a sound-byte culture. And it requires paying enough attention to recognize when you got it wrong.

Albatross @36 mentioned 18th century medicine as something that killed a lot of people, but that didn't mean that medicine as a whole was a bad idea. I'd go on and add that it isn't that 18th century people made the unfortunate choice to have 18th century medicine when they could have had 21st century medicine instead. There was, to some extent, no way to get to here from there other than through the middle.

We almost always have only a choice between imperfect alternatives, but imperfect doesn't necessarily mean immoral. Sometimes it's the first of a series of successive approximations.

#44 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 01:27 PM:

The other side of the problem, that should always be borne in mind, is that any plan to ameliorate anything will

a. Always be opposed by a large segment of the population that either knows its material interests are threatened, or doesn't believe the amelioration to be necessary, feasible and/or advanced in good faith; and

b. Leave the way open to further, newly-minted abuses of power.

It's not just that it's tough to choose the right thing to do; it's that other people will resolutely seek to stop you, and some of the ones on your side will turn out to be stinkers.

#45 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 01:33 PM:

#11 albatross

Perhaps we are looking at this inside out? If every scrap of land was used, inhabited, employed in some way by some human being going back as far as we can envision and find proofs for (including all those lands that are still determined theirs by transhumance groups and other seasonally nomadic groups for their annual migrations and trade routes) -- well, maybe we ALL need to learn to share all lands and their resources, to reverse the trend to turn everything into personal and private property?

As far as slave numbers in the past vs the slave numbers in the present? (Sorry, I don't recall the number and person of that post.)

In the past slavery was also legal, as was serfdom in czarist Russia and associated regions. Enslaving, buying and selling human beings, is now a criminal act, as per the legal codes of nearly every region the world. We are even now engaged in criminalizing the buying and selling of human part, such as organs, for transplant. Yet, like slavery, the numbers of these transactions continues to increase with each decade. Which means, among other things, that the chances that your children or grandchildren may become enslaved as well -- or own some, or at least employ some, in some capacity. As it is right now how many millions of men around the world are doing so right this minutes, as the largest number of slaves these days are incarcerated in the global sex industry.

Love, C.

#46 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 02:11 PM:

Constance #45: How do you deal with conflicting uses? It's probably pretty hard to be a hunter-gatherer tribe in the middle of a sea of parking lots, roads, and housing developments. (Though admittedly, the deer population around here *is* a little high....)

And some of those uses are just flat not okay with us now. I'm sure going viking for fun and profit was part of a fine and interesting lifestyle for many people, but we tend to sink the ships and jail the sailors who do that stuff[1].

[1] Though that would have made an even better April 1st navy story. "Captain, we seem to be being attacked by...Vikings."

#47 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 03:15 PM:

Bruce Baugh @ 39:

At this point we know very little about how to design robust, effective, and cooperative systems. Until just a few decades ago almost all systems grew up "organically" like Topsy, with no design at all, and often very little in the way of real objectives for the nature of the system even at the top. We're starting to see some developments in this respect, but even more important than the knowledge of how to build such systems is the will to do so. Consider the fate of NUMMI, the joint Toyota-GM initiative that should have converted a knackered corporate industrial failure into one of the most competitive manufacturers on the planet. It was defeated primarily by an attitude of "We don't do things that way, and we'd rather fail than try." Check out last week's NPR Radio broadcast of "This American Life" for a story on it.

Our (human) history of system-building is further besmirched by a very common tendency for humans to insist on simple, over-arching solutions, "magic bullets" as they're called in the software trade. We ought to be well aware by now that human interactions are just too complex for simple rules to work all the time, but us ground-apes (thanks, Graydon) are wired to find quick, simple fixes, and it's a hard habit to break.

The transformation of planning from analysis to simulation over the last 50 years or so may be a big factor in changing our collective thinking about how (and whether) our systems should be designed. If nothing else, it may make it less acceptable for people who are serious about solving the problems we face with ourselves and our environment to simply place their faith in behavior which has caused many of the problems.

#48 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 03:25 PM:

#46 ::: albatross

We have learned that parking lots, and what supports parking lots, is having very negative effects on all of us.

We have also learned that running certain sorts of animals in large numbers on certain sorts of lands has very negative effects for us all -- sheep and goats eat the roots of plants as well as everything else, and their sharp hooves tear up the very ground itself -- as do cattle hooves.

It's called cooperation for the survival of our mother planet, and thus ourselves.

But as Bruce Cohen pointed out above, our experience with deeply cooperative agencies and systems is very limited. We as a species appear to rather steal and fight rather than cooperate and share -- at least with anyone perceived as outside our perceived inside group.

However in a cooperative world Vikings wouldn't be around, supposedly. But realistically, human nature being what it is, somebody would be sure to go a-Viking anyway. Thus the rest of us would need to have some body that could combat the Vikings, and around we go.


Love, C.

#49 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 03:37 PM:

Yet, the Haitians, for instance, by and large, the people, not the ruling elite, are deeply cooperative. Sharing, as with Cubans, is part of the mainstream culture. There are selfish individuals who find or take ways around it, but one of the primary currents of the culture itself expresses itself via cooperation and sharing.

I keep citing Haiti and Cuba so often, because these are very different cultures than the ones I grew up in, and these are the ones I am most deeply acquainted with, both in terms of formal research and in personal relationships.

That sharing and cooperation are deeply part of these two cultures doesn't seem to be an accident, as the cultural systems of both of them are built on West and Central African cultural models.

Love, C.

#50 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 03:50 PM:

AKA 'Not Invented Here'?

#51 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 04:11 PM:

albatross @ 36: "a. There are no existing institutions (of some size and age and power) that don't have some awful crimes somewhere in their history.

b. There are no existing institutions (of some size and age and power) that aren't built, at least partly, on current or very recent, ongoing crime and mistreatment and injustice."

There's a third part, which I think is very hard for many (privileged) people to grasp: the truth of a) almost necessarily implies the truth of b). Injustice echoes through history; an initial theft of wealth can continue paying dividends long after the thieves have passed on. Once that initial imbalance is created the system will generate inequality without the need for any further thefts.

Almost everyone would agree that it is unfair to let team A, who cheated all through the first half, keep the points they scored even if they behaved as angels in the second half. Yet slide a generation change in during half-time and people will protest "It isn't my fault that I inherited these points! I am not responsible for that cheating!" and attempt to hold onto the benefits even as they disown the malfeasance. And yet, wil they or nil they, they own both.

#52 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 04:26 PM:

Bruce Cohen @47:

I think an even bigger obstacle, both in the specific case of NUMMI and more generally in the redesign of systems is what's been called the Iron Law of Institutions:

For the vast majority of the members in any human institution, the maintenance and protection of their own power within the organization is much more important than the health of the organization as a whole.

(And the corollary that, absent overwhelming evidence to the contrary, members of an institution will always see the interests of the institution as aligned with their own interests.)

In the NUMMI story, the best example was from the Van Nuys plant, which just reeked of the Iron Law, from the union member who said that rotating workers rather than letting more senior workers choose their jobs was abrogating "basic fairness" to the managers who threatened to resign en masse if they were forced to eat lunch in the same cafeteria as their workers.

I think in some ways as social animals we're hardwired to fight for our place in whatever social structure we're in. When that social struggle is played out to decide whether Thok or Grog rules the cave, there's little more at stake than Thok and Grog's chances at reproduction. But institutional struggles in the modern world generally have more at stake for more people than whether Dick or Jane gets the corner office and the big salary.

Just another way that running a car company or conducting international diplomacy with a brain designed to maximize reproductive success on the savannah is like hammering nails with a screwdriver. It can be done, but not quickly or efficiently, and you end up with a lot of bent nails.

(As one of my old bosses was fond of saying: "Any tool is a hammer if you use it properly.")

#53 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 04:30 PM:

Constance @49:

Add the Dutch to that list. They're not based on West African models; this is native to the land itself. No matter how much Catholic and Protestant and atheist (and now Muslim) struggle against each other, we all know that the battle of the sea is a shared endeavor. The flood won't check passports or church affiliation.

#54 ::: Sarah E ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 07:28 PM:

Slightly OT - for me, the trouble with any Omelas-type fictional society is that my reaction tends to be "wait - *only one kid* has to be sacrificed in this society? That's still better than any human society that has ever existed -- sign me up!"

#55 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2010, 10:07 PM:

Leroy F. Berven #30, Tony Zbaraschuk #31:

I'm happy to defer to your better knowledge of Russian history! Between your comments, you seem to have shifted "The Problem With Russia" to something that fell between my sentences! I shall rephrase: When the advanced systems break down, or are destroyed (by whatever means), you lose the prosperity that depends on them.

Constance #49, abi #53: I'd say all three of your examples share a common factor, which I think has far more importance than their individual history or heritage: They are all under constant external threat! For Haiti and Cuba, that's largely from the USA and those the USA could bully into line; for the Dutch, it's the ocean. And external threats are well known to stimulate cooperation in a wide variety of contexts....

Chris W. #52: Indeed! More generally, those who want to "replace the system", commonly fail to recognize that the status quo is itself a system -- which, having been shaped by evolutionary processes, has organic resilience. In other words, an ongoing social system can, and probably will, defend itself against external pressures. That in turn means that in social-management questions, "how do we get there from here" is never a trivial question.

#56 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 01:23 AM:

One of the more impressive tricks that the writers of the United States Constitutions pulled off was to create a new system of government composed of several other systems which were set in operation on each other ("checks and balances"). They realized that any one system would eventually (if not sooner) fall prey to the Iron Law of Institutions and that there was no good way to prevent or correct this from inside the affected system.

I suspect that no really viable civil system is going to be able to make major changes in the status quo without using some form of that trick: the future of viable systems design is very likely to involve multiple, possibly self-organizing groups of systems whose effect on each other is to monitor and stabilize the systems against the kind of corruption of system objectives that has defeated so many attempts at long-lived civil organizations.

#57 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 02:17 AM:

"the future of viable systems design is very likely to involve multiple, possibly self-organizing groups of systems whose effect on each other is to monitor and stabilize the systems"

i.e., an ecology.

#58 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 04:18 AM:

Initial expository material:
There are some counterexamples, though: I think the Society of Friends's actions in North America were non-offensive in nature and inclusive.

Regarding other stuff:

When the Europeans showed up in the Americas, there were various tribal and other group-level arrangements--there were natives who aligned with the Spanish against the Aztecs, regarding the Spanish as preferable to being literal meat for Aztecs and sources of heads to play ball games with and to pile up in the middle of what today is Mexico City--a Spaniard wrote of a giant pile of skulls, which for centuries there was a level of credulity about. Within the past couple years, the credulity has vanished, the rest of finding the giant pile of skulls....

A friend is a descendant of one of the most lethal native-killers in the Massachusetts Bay Coloy--the friend's comment is that the fellow was engaged in tribal warfare against one set of his native relatives on behalf of another set of his native relatives.

I was taught in public school that the Chickasaw and Choctaw tried adopting and complying with European-based culture and ways, and were nonetheless abused and dispossessed of lands and homes and driven out....


I'm second generation US-born; none of my grandparents were born in the western hemisphere. All of them were from families subject to persecution and violent attack in Eastern Europe. My mother's mother had peeked out the window through curtains at Cossacks galloping thorugh the streets skewering anything that moved in the vicinity of Bialystock.

The events that shaped the birth and development of the USA in North America, my ancestors were not involved with. They were getting chased around Eurasia and begrudgingly allowed to settle in Eastern Europe until such time as departure became more attractive/remaining was getting more and dangerous/the wherewithal to leave along with the will to leave appeared.

Previous thread:
Xopher's #390 in combined with the more explicit "genocide" discussion was the spark for my comments in #410:

I also think the UN definition needs to include forced relocation, which is a way of eliminating a particular population from a specific area (i.e. ethnic cleansing). I think that needs to be moderated with the notion of intent to cause death or depraved indifference to life, but I'm not sure exactly how; I still want slaughtering a whole village to be considered worse than just chasing them away. At a minimum relocators should be entirely responsible for the basic needs of the relocatees during and after the relocation (I mean to avoid the charge of attempting genocide; I think forced relocation should still be a crime).

Close to a million Misrahi [spelling]--east Asian and North African Jews--relocated under severe persecution, discrimination, and violent attack, to what today is Israel. Them relocating vacated the quarters they had lived in, for which they received no recompense--those quarters, however, did not get used to relocate anyone who departed what today is Israel. It wasn't a refugee swap, because the only country the Middle East which granted citizenship to those who departed what today is Israel, was Kuwait--all the others were put into a permanent state of statelessness, told that they were "Palestinians" and that they must spend their blood driving out "the Jews" and move into the quarters occupied by Jews....

There was and has been no attempt by Israel to destroy the culture of those the surrounding countries has kept in permanent resident alien status or to commit mass murder on them or other kill them as targets or "collateral damage" when they are not launching attacks on Israelis (consider WW II and attacks on cities and the civilian population losses from attacks on military facilities within the cities).

I don't see forced expulsion as genocide.... the points I was not making explicitly:

o the Misrahi immigration to Israel was a combination of voluntary emigration from regions of persecution and increasingly intolerable conditions, tantatamount to expulsion (various of the areas were averse to allowing Jewish emigration, emigration on the basis of seeing Israel as a better place to live than where they were from (there is a difference between leaving somewhere because you're being persecuted, and leaving because you see somewhere else as a place where you would prefer to live, even though from the outside there might not appear to be a difference... there were Misrahi Jews who went to other parts of the world, who decided they would rather go to the USA than Israel, or to England, or Canada or Argentina, or Brazil, or Mexico, etc.)
o Misrahi Jews have grudges as refugees, against the surrounding countries they came from, at I think below a "genocide" level view--they were targeted for persecuted resident alien status where they were, in Israel they have citizenship--and resent that people they see as having left voluntarily for the most part, should be seen by the Islamic world--especially the countries that abused them and denied them rights and confiscated their possession--as owed the homes and citizenship that the Misrahi have in Israel, and demand the Misrahi be denied residence in East Jerusalem. The Misrahi were deprived of houses and livelihoods in Islamic countries, the Islamic world want them victimized a second time and deprived of homes and livelihood without recompense and relocation....Had they not left, genocide was not an outside the boundaries fate..... hmmm, thinking about that, Iberia's treatment of Jews following the convert, leave or die order in Portugal after the 1492 convert, leave, or die expulsion order in Spain, could be considered genocide. Genocide might also be a term applicable to what happened to Jews in the Rhineland and in York etc. during Crusader era religious fervor; the suppression of the Cathars; the treatment of non-Catholics in Spain; the demise of Greek and Christian culture in Asia Minor with the invasion of the Turks;

o (not mentioned before) the Misrahi from what I recollect reading, etc., tend to be lower generally on the socioeconomic ladder in Israel than Ashkenzai (European in early 20th and in the 19th and 18th etc. centuries) Jews and Shephadic (descended from ex-Iberian pennisula)Jews, and there are a lot of class issues involved--the cultural and social differences in the state of Israel range across multiple dimensions, of which religious traditions are but one set of many different axes--the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a part of the world prone to riots of different branches of Christianity contending with one another over access issues, for example--that's a conflict which is totally unrelated to Islamic extremists versus Haredi hardliners...

Anyway, there were at least as many Jewish refugees from Islamic countries who relocated to what today is Israel from Islamic countries, as there were people who at the urging of Islamic countries bent on "driving the Jews into the sea" decamped to less volatile-for-Muslims countries outside the areas that the Arab League was targeting.

I'm trying to be somewhat neutral in tone--yes, there were Jewish extremists who were violent. But many of them were driven by violence visited on them in the countries they were refugees from, the driving forces in the 1880s involve a rise in nationalism that covered much of the world. Resident aliens and minority populations got persecuted as a consequence of nationalist fever and desire for self-rule and have national values than tended to include state religion enforcement and ethnic monoculture.... the level of persecution varied, against Jews it tended to be pogroms and pressure to convert--40 years' service in the Russian Army for male Jews in Russia and pressure on them to convert being one example--where not outright expelled or murdered; Shi'a versus Sunni versus Alawite versus Sufi etc. branches of Islam; Protestant vs Catholic strife; the area which Tito managed to keep a lid on ancient ethnic hatreds for decades during the 2oth century of Serb versus Croat versus Bosnian etc.; the decline of the Ottoman Empire and rise of Arab nationalism--and with a strong thread of Islam as preferred religion involved.

Anyway, there was a lot of ethnic intolerance, a huge rising wave of it, bloodbaths, forced relocations... and the worst bloodbaths happened when people were trapped. In the case of some of the worst mass murders, the situation involved there being nowhere the people could go to.

It wasn't until every country in the world except China refused to allow Jewish immigration, and after a visit from Amin al-Husseini (uncle or such other relative close relative to Saddam Hussein) to Germany, that the German government chose the path of mass murder and extermination to eliminate Jews from German-controlled territory....

No, I am NOT applauding it, not at all. I am pointing out that in all the entire world, outside of that one far far far away country, there was nowhere in the world that the Jews of Europe could emigrate to or otherwise legally an in substantiative numbers go to for refuge and survival. Germany's policy was "we don't want them," the rest of the world didn't want Jews, either.... and then Germany, unable to expell them because the rest of the world wouldn't take them, decided to murder them all to eliminate them....

There are different ways of killing off a culture. One of them is to murder everyone in that culture. Another is to take the children away and/or raise them forbidding the teaching of the culture of the parent to the children. Yet another way is for the parents to not teach the culture to their children. And another way, is for the children to reject the culture of their ancestry. Another way is where the culture's bases don't exist anymore/conditions change/survival necessitates changes. The culture of using chert tools and living as hunter-gathers can't support national populations of the number of people who exist today. The cultures based on small fishing boats going to sea and communities living as fishing villages, are mostly gone with the fish stocks reduced. The whaling culture is gone with the whales, the Scythian and Sauromartians and Romans with their temples and legions and the Celts with their religion and sacred groves etc., are gone....

The past, and sometime the present, too, has/have seen movements where entire communities, localities, regions, even countries, change culture and religion on tipping points....

Nationalism rising in the 1880s, again, had the effect of turning violent and murderous against resident aliens, minorities, and people who were not of the culture of those taking power. People able to flee did. Many of those who didn't or couldn't died from bad living condition or from violence/attack, with the remaining ones some combination of assimilating or attempting to assimilate into the allowed majority and the less intolerate minorities, or remaining but with a worse and worse standard of living and living conditions--and being persecuted more and more and more and more despised.

#59 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 04:24 AM:

Sarah E @54:

That's a deep, not a shallow, reading of that story. Of course we valorize the Ones Who Walk Away in the story, but it's worth understanding how everyone else lives there, and how they can see that as a right choice.

This is why, in Catholic Stations of the Cross services on Good Friday, the congregation calls for Jesus's death. Because we need to understand why people do this stuff, and that, given those choices, we probably would too. For good reasons.

#60 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 04:33 AM:

Paula @58:

Did you really just explicitly drag the thrash over from the thread we shut down because people were behaving reprehensibly, being obsessed beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior on this website? Do you think that that kind of behavior is going to cause people to agree with your perspective?

I can see no way in which posting that comment was a good idea. Can you? Seriously?


Do not answer Paula's comment.

I have to drop a kid off at a dance lesson, and when I come back, I'm going to have to tackle this.

#61 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 05:03 AM:

#28 David
The original capital of Russia was Kiev, and what today is Ukraine, had good farmland. Soviet era mismanagement and pollution etc. are different issues.

The governmental organization of Russia developed in ways that over time stifled economy-building....

#31 Tony
Yeah, you're right... wars broke out in Europe and then the warring factions got enthralled with the stupid idea of taking their warring and heading east into Russia.... with everyone losing as a result.

#36 albatross

There have been cultures such as the Oneida colony and the Shakers where communal living worke for some amount of time, and there was a town in Kansas during the railroad growth era were there was no segregation and no difference in living standard between dark and light skinnne people--that last apparently because the town had equal economic opportunity and full employment and there was a musical chairs-type or zero-sum economy involved....

#38 Larry
Roads out of the dilemma include change rules to foster win-win co-prosperity-sphere thinking, instead of "Head I win, tails you lose" zero sum gaming.

The forgotten lessons of Apollo include that when there are thousands of people with a common goal and management who trusts the people an the workers who trust management, as regards everyone feeling rewarded and having the same definition of success and working together for the goals, yes, you literally can go to the Moon and beyond.... -that- was not a zero-sum game.

#39 Bruce
Some of the issues are worldview and perceptual chasms. There are very deep values and faith and perceptual difference from the worldviews of the like of Scalia and Alito to me, or Micelle Malkin and *nn C**lt*r and S*r*h P*l*n and *l**n* D*nn*ly and me. Their values if the country were compliant to them, deny me opportunities and free will....

#43 Otter
Culture has an enormous influence on, er, culture--Baghdad a thousand years ago was one of the most erudite cities on the planet. The culture fostered astronomical observation, mathematic advancement, medical advancement, hygiene, literature, geography.... study was a social value and thought to be a glorification to Allah. Astronomy helped pinpoint when to make the call to prayer, among other things.... now contrast those sort of vaues, versus the values of Taliban's vision of Islam and Wahabibi Islam and the cultures in places when they hold sway--and the choices or lack thereof of the populace.

#45 Constance
What about "the tragedy of the Commons" where public property gets abused and misused, because there are no people whose generation roles are to husband the property and have a stake going forward to the future, as opposed to lowest common denominator nihilist vandals who feel no sense of obligation or reponsibility....

#47 Bruce
Google on the likes of Count Rumford and Loammi Baldwin. Also look up the Apollo Progras as regads large program management.... it's no that there is little known, it's that implementing such things, involves longitudinal continuity and building up teams that stay in place. The US Government budgetign year by year with political wind direction changes makes it extremely difficult. Compare than with the cathedral builders, where the building were multigenerational dedicated efforts.

Short term gain is a socially abominable thing.... It's what flat panel industry lives in Asia and not the USA, the tech for LCD, LED, OLED, plasma display etc., was invented and researched here--and the funding for production facilities, wasn't available here, the financiers refused to invest in production facilities without orders before building plants; propective customers refused to give orders until and unless the factory existed to fulfill the orders.

Japan Inc and Korea and later China put the capital into building factories, in advance of orders.

#62 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 05:11 AM:

#48 Constance
There have been cooperative relatonships though--Motorola and IBM had a multiple decades' long business relationship of being one another's favor outside semiconductor parts manufacturer. Motorola was the preferred semiconductor producer for the auto industry in the USA, for decades.

Those thing weren't seen by the public, but those sorts of long-term supplier-customer relationships used to exist when the focus was longer than "pay out the most money for this and next quarter to the pension fund owners which need that continuing revenue paid out."

#63 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 05:25 AM:

OK, after a more careful reread of Paula's comment, I'm willing to let it stand. I appreciate the effort toward neutrality of tone.

But I don't think we're going to discuss the matter of Israel further on this thread. And I am disappointed that we can't, on Making Light, and I attach more blame to one side of the discussion than to the other. Would that Paula's care were more often exerted.

#64 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 09:03 AM:

#55 David Harmon

Well, Haiti is a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S., thereby enriching the cooperating ruling elite who who surrogate the economic fiefdomage and support the surrogate U.S. military occupation. At the moment, there isn't a surrogate. The U.S. military is there.

However, that's not how the cultural systems shared by the larger, oppressed population groups operate. Music, as in New Orleans, was the first responder in Haiti post the earthquake, as music is the first responder in many, if not all, African cultural systems. Not because they are having a party and feel good. But because it is the supreme expression of their spirituality and cultural continuity.

Have you been to Haiti or Cuba or Africa? Do you have a lot of friends who are rooted in these cultures?

Love, C.

#65 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 09:20 AM:

To amplify: The very reason that Cuba can be united against the outside constant threat of the U.S. is because the majority populations of Cuba are from a particular group of African nacíons. In the baraccoons of the sugar plantations, they were able to preserve their cultural heritages -- because their populations were constantly refreshed directly from Africa, because they were dead within ten years on average from overwork and under-feeding.

IOW, they know who they are. We have elderly friends whose grandfathers were born in Africa, less elderly friends who greatgrandparents were born in Africa. They know who they are. Benny More spoke kiKongo at home.

Almost everything in these parts of Africa from where came these nacíons was organized around age groups, was cooperative and collective, and tightly woven with their spiritual systems and the rest of their cultural expressions. All of it had / has their distinctive songs and dance and rhythms. This came with them in their hearts, minds and souls, when they came to Haiti and Cuba, and was reconstructed, innovated, and evolved in cultural layers of various slave imports -- and tightly wound with each other over the generations.

Haiti, even, had a whole population of trained, professional warriors imported out of Angola, who had been using guns since the 17th century, because of the Portuguese occupation. Many from Angola and Kongo could read and write, due to conversion to the Roman Church. Somebody played a very bad trick on the planters of San Domingue when they foisted those captures upon them in the decade before the Revolution.

As much truth as DH has in his declaration that the reason Haiti and Cuba are cooperative is because of U.S. as outside threat -- it doesn't go that far in explanation. What it does do again, is take away agency from Cubans and Haitians, and make it about the mighty U.S., rather than about Cuba and Haiti, those poor countries with populations that cooperate and share with each other. If that makes sense?

Love, C.

#66 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 09:25 AM:

Constance, 65: I'd like to know more about your spelling choices. Why "nación" and "Kongo"? You're obviously making a point, but I'm missing the subtleties.

#67 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 10:15 AM:

albatross @ 36: "a. There are no existing institutions (of some size and age and power) that don't have some awful crimes somewhere in their history.

b. There are no existing institutions (of some size and age and power) that aren't built, at least partly, on current or very recent, ongoing crime and mistreatment and injustice."

Please indicate what crimes that you think Amnesty International and the NAACP have committed.

#68 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 10:34 AM:

Glenn, Amnesty International and the NAACP don't have the same kind of power as the Roman Catholic Church and the United States Senate. (Alas.)

#69 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 10:42 AM:

TexAnne @66, in the 17th century, it was the Kingdom of Kongo.

#70 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 10:51 AM:

Thanks, Earl. Now why "nación"?

#71 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 11:09 AM:

#66 TexAnne

Nacíon, because, in Cuba they speak Spanish. Spanish was the lingua franca among the different "nations" who were brought in to work the plantations that exploded in numbers in the late 18th century and thereafter. Nations are what the slaves called themselves in the baracoons, and call themselves to this day in the cabildos and potencías -- "From what nation do you come?" they will ask each other. (The sugar industry came to Cuba much later than in other parts of the Caribbean, thus the importation of slaves was low until then. Cuba made its prosperity out of serving the flotas bringing New World extracted wealth back to Spain.)

Kongo is the spelling among scholars and researchers in linguistics, ethnography, geography, etc. that ascribes to the people and their language, kiKongo, which is the fundamental layer of all African diaspora creoles and cultures in the New World. The first, last, and largest populations brought to the New World came from Kongo.

Love, C.

#72 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 11:09 AM:

#66 TexAnne

Nacíon, because, in Cuba they speak Spanish. Spanish was the lingua franca among the different "nations" who were brought in to work the plantations that exploded in numbers in the late 18th century and thereafter. Nations are what the slaves called themselves in the baracoons, and call themselves to this day in the cabildos and potencías -- "From what nation do you come?" they will ask each other. (The sugar industry came to Cuba much later than in other parts of the Caribbean, thus the importation of slaves was low until then. Cuba made its prosperity out of serving the flotas bringing New World extracted wealth back to Spain.)

Kongo is the spelling among scholars and researchers in linguistics, ethnography, geography, etc. that ascribes to the people and their language, kiKongo, which is the fundamental layer of all African diaspora creoles and cultures in the New World. The first, last, and largest populations brought to the New World came from Kongo.

Love, C.

#73 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 11:24 AM:

Constance--OK, so no English equivalent. Thank you. But as long as we're being respectful, I might as well point out that it's spelled "nación."

And all African diaspora creoles? Does that mean in history, or the ones that survived long enough to be written down, or something else? I thought that one of the slavers' dirty tricks was taking people from all over the west coast of Africa, so that they wouldn't understand each other. Was kiKongo that widely spoken in Africa? (And once again I find that what I learned in school ain't necessarily so.)

#74 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 11:40 AM:

Glenn @67

The crimes are generally in proportion with the power and longevity of the institution, and on this scale neither the NAACP or Amnesty International is very old or very powerful. But I'm sure that someone with a detailed insider's knowledge of the history of either organization could tell a story of deals with despicable characters and good fights that were abandoned or betrayed because they didn't serve the purposes of the institution. Having worked for a non-profit advocacy group I can say that the groups which continue to exist and exert influence are those that, when push comes to shove, place their own institutional power above moral purity.

I'm reminded of Shaw's description of the angry fanmail he received after writing Major Barbara. A major plot point of the play is that the title character, a Major in the Salvation Army, is shocked and appalled to learn that the Salvation Army is taking money from the very whiskey barons who create the misery they seek to alleviate. Shaw got two types of people who objected to this plot point: non-members of the Salvation Army, who thought it was an offensive slur to suggest that the Salvation Army did such things and members of the Salvation Army who thought it absurd that anyone could rise to the rank of Major while maintaining the delusion that the Salvation Army did not do such things.

#75 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 11:57 AM:

Everywhere in the New World the first layer was Kongo. Sheer numbers along of those exported from Kongo ensured that. Surely, perhaps, there might be exceptions, where the creole, say on the Pacific coast of Colombia is only a mixture of an African language and that of the local indios, but they are isolated and minor.

Linguistic forensics now indicates that the creoles BEGAN to form in the slave holding pens in Africa (slave castles), on the Middle Passage ships. Thus the slaves could communicate with each other even before being sold in the New World. (Interestingly though, while English and French readily creolized with African languages, there is no Spanish creole.)

The Portuguese were the first to begin slaving, and the last to abolish it. The region they controlled from the begining was what is now Angola and Kongo. The region is huge. We're speaking from the 1500s until late into the 19th century. Brasil was the last New World country to abolish the slave trade and to abolish slavery. The Cuba was the penultimate, and the U.S. the third to last, decades after slavery was abolished everywhere else in the New World.

The high noon of the trade with the 18th century -- and the Brits controlled it all down the Atlantic coast of Africa, except for Kongo, which was the possession of Portugal. The Brits though, bought from the traders there too, of course. These were the most numerous and the least expensive. In the meantime new territories -- i.e. nations, or tribes or peoples -- came on the slave market, due to the incursions from the Muslim Fulani peoples of the north into traditional West Africa, due to, increasingly, wars made to take slaves to sell into the ever more lucrative trade. The Ouidah were particularly infamous for this

However, at least in this country, English speaking slaves were preferred. They already knew how to do the work and could communicate. They were, as it was termed in the slave industry, 'seasoned.' They were also more expensive. Cuba became the place to 'season' slaves. U.S. Slaveonwers and traders made regular runs to Cuba to bring back numbers of seasoned slaves.
By the way, those looking for information on this from Roots, both Hailey's Roots, and even Courlander's The African from which Hailey outrageously plagerized -- it's historically wrong in many areas. Courlander was a pioneer in these studies. He, like every other scholar, didn't get everything right.

In the U.S. though, by the 18th century there was such a population of slaves -- mostlyue to inter and intra rivalry wars, and due to Kongo and from the Guinea region, meaning Senegal and Mali mostly -- that until the Louisiana Purchase and rise of cotton early in the 19th century, they were nearly enough for the needs of the predominate slaveholding states' needs. As badly fed as U.S. slaves were, as terrible their workload, all leading to early death, they were far healthier than those of other parts of the New World, ate better, lived longer and bred. For one thing there were as many African descent women in the U.S. as men. This was different in other parts of the New World that imported predominately male slaves.

You can directly map the areas from which African slaves were brought to the musical, linguistic and cultural aspect of Diaspora culture in the New World. That's why we have the blues in the U.S. but not in Cuba. That's why they have the clave in Cuba but in the U.S.

The best source for this information, the source used in many grad and undergrad courses dealing with these histories is Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.

Yes, it is nación. Sorry about that error.

Love, C.

#76 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 12:02 PM:

Constance #64: Have you been to Haiti or Cuba or Africa? Do you have a lot of friends who are rooted in these cultures?

I have not and do not. I merely have a personal bias toward "environmental" explanations over "essentialist" explanations.

I do have some background with the recent-immigrant culture of New York Jewry (two of my grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe). There was a striking pattern in NYC and Long Island, of immigrants banding together, forming cooperative societies and generally busting their butts for the welfare of their communities and children. A couple of generations later, most of those institutions fell into disrepair, and many of the third and fourth generations started "going to the bad". Where the immigrant grandparents had banded together against prejudice and worked hard to overcome their handicaps, the third generation often grew up in now-successful families and communities which accepted them -- they took both the money and their tribal identities for granted, sometimes with dire results. In my own case, I grew up in a family of schoolteachers -- we were rather poorer than I realized at the time, despite Mom's careful choice of a home where we could go to the "good" school in the next town over. We also had the grandparents handy, with the extended family getting along amazingly well.

#77 ::: Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 12:30 PM:

Constance #75: Linguistic forensics now indicates that the creoles BEGAN to form in the slave holding pens in Africa

I thought that the linguistic distinction between creoles and pidgins was that pidgin languages were patched together for communication between adults and creoles were the fully-formed languages that often resulted when children grew up exposed to a pidgin. Are you saying that the slaves in Africa developed a genuine creole language, or that (despite the transient population of the holding areas in Africa) there were stable features of their pidgin languages that ended up in the various creoles that their descendants developed? The former would be surprising, the latter would be interesting but not very surprising.

#78 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 12:40 PM:

#77 Thomas

See what was included in my #75 (caps included in *75):

[ "Linguistic forensics now indicates that the creoles BEGAN to form in the slave holding pens in Africa (slave castles), on the Middle Passage ships. Thus the slaves could communicate with each other even before being sold in the New World. (Interestingly though, while English and French readily creolized with African languages, there is no Spanish creole.)" ]

BTW, only recently has the Haitian language, Kreyole, been included on the official register of languages, though it has been spoken fully on Haiti since before the Revolution.

And now we're off, to have lunch at the home of Spike Lee's location music producer, made for us by Che Guevarra's former personal secretary. Ain't life weird?

Love, c.

#79 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 12:40 PM:

Constance @65:

As much truth as DH has in his declaration that the reason Haiti and Cuba are cooperative is because of U.S. as outside threat -- it doesn't go that far in explanation. What it does do again, is take away agency from Cubans and Haitians, and make it about the mighty U.S., rather than about Cuba and Haiti, those poor countries with populations that cooperate and share with each other.

That's definitely one way to see it, but you can also turn that on its head. Isn't it somewhat dehumanizing to say that, rather than responding to their environment in rational and productive ways, Caribbean societies are cooperative because that's just the way that those people are?

I generally share DH's bias towards environmental explanations, but that has a lot to do with a certain cast of mind and the fact that a preponderance of my college professors who taught about this type of stuff took that view.

DH and I tend to think that cooperation is a part of Cuban and Haitian culture because external threats, man-made and natural, trump internal competition. You tend to think that Cubans and Haitians band together against external threats because cooperation is a part of their culture. But either way you talk about it, it means recognizing that individuals in a society have a whole collection of realities that constrain their free will.

#80 ::: Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 01:00 PM:

TexAnne #73: I thought that one of the slavers' dirty tricks was taking people from all over the west coast of Africa, so that they wouldn't understand each other.

A lot of the west coast of Africa speaks fairly closely related Bantu languages, with kiKongo as one of the largest. There might well be enough diversity of language for the slavers to think the languages were completely different, but enough similarity to hack together an effective form of communication.

#81 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 02:51 PM:

heresiarch @ 57:
i.e., an ecology.

Well, yes, but I think a lot of the systems we'll see will not be immediately recognizable as what we think of as ecologies. For instance, there's still a huge debate over whether the human mind can be considered an ecology of cooperating and competing systems¹ and I don't foresee that sort of argument going away for awhile. It's still too easy for discussions of system behavior to get bogged down in issues of which levels of organization are "more significant" than others.

Paula Lieberman @ 61:

The kind of systems I'm talking about are considerably more complex than relatively rigid ones which try to retain their structure over time in the face of change. There need to be higher-order feedbacks that create adaptations to change and alter objectives as necessary for the larger community to benefit. Nasa was managed by techniques that evolved from the large-scale military and technological projects of WWII and the early Cold War; they were highly successful because they had very clear objectives and even then projects often became enmeshed in survival strategies after the objectives were attained (MOL succeeded in completely screwing up the Shuttle objectives before it was quietly shut down as too expensive and not very useful).

@ 62:
The IBM / Motorola cooperation fell apart completely when both companies ceased to be dominant in their respective primary markets and couldn't deal with each other from positions of strength. IBM was being hammered by low-cost server vendors such that their ability to design bleeding-edge silicon wasn't enough of an advantage to keep marketshare; Motorola sat on its ass as digital wireless communications ate their analog market, and suddenly discovered they could no longer afford to support a CPU design and fab capability that was always marginally profitable at best. They both overcame these obstacles eventually, but not before the benefits they offered each other disappeared.

1. I think the evidence is rather persuasive that the mind is something like an ecology, but then I'm a lot more open to emergent systems explanations than many people with dogs in that fight.

#82 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 03:13 PM:

One implication of Bruce's view is that no group of humans can operate from an unassailable position of moral superiority. Of course that's something we all try to do when we can, because we like to be able to justify our own goals and means above others'. But I think Bruce makes a convincing argument that as humans we simply can't appeal to over-arching causes of justice or to principles of universal law; they just don't exist outside of our own narratives of justification.

This implies to me that, if we want to make the world a better place for the human race as a whole, that we will have to rely on pragmatic values and local optimizations a good part of the time. Lacking the ability to foresee the long-term consequences of our acts, we have to choose the options which seem to have the greatest tendency to promote welfare and reduce suffering. But how can we know that we're not making bad choices for the long-term? We can't; but we have to choose despite that.

#83 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 05:06 PM:

Bruce Cohen #81: For instance, there's still a huge debate over whether the human mind can be considered an ecology of cooperating and competing systems....

Certainly the mind is an emergent system, and just as certainly it's been deeply shaped by evolutionary processes. Indeed, multiplication-selection cycles seem central to the brain's development. But that doesn't mean the brain, or mind, is an ecology itself!

It's surely true that not all ecologies are apparent as such, but we also should recognize that not all "organically complex" systems, even those produced by evolution, retain the evolutionary motif internally -- sometimes, they evolve to use entirely different patterns of operation and persistence.

#84 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 05:38 PM:

TexAnne #73: "I thought that one of the slavers' dirty tricks was taking people from all over the west coast of Africa, so that they wouldn't understand each other."

This is something of a myth. Slaveowners in the various territories of the Americas are known to have had strong preferences as to the origins of their slaves, even if they did not know much about the culture and peoples of west Africa beyond the slave factories on the coast. Thus, the French in Martinique and Saint-Domingue has strong preferences for Africans from the Bight of Benin. The British in Jamaica had a pretty strong preference, from the early eighteenth century on, for slaves from the Bight of Biafra. Slaveowners in the Carolinas wanted slaves from the Upper Guinea Coast. In each case, the characteristics of the region, or people from the region, were seen as important by the planters in the Americas. This had a significant impact on the culture of the colonies in the Americas, and the independent states that succeeded them.

Thus, because of the preference by St. Domingue planters (and Martinique planters) for enslaved labour from the Bight of Benin, the culture of places strongly influenced by the choices made by those planters, not just Haiti and Martinique, but eastern Cuba and Trinidad*(not to mention other places colonised by the French,or where French planters took refuge following the Haitian Revolution with those slaves they were able to keep) is that of the people who lived in the hinterland of the Bight of Benin. That is to say, the Yoruba.

Jamaican planters had a stronger preference for slaves from further east in what is now Nigeria, as a result there are significant Igbo survivals in Jamaican culture.

I'm basing this, btw, on the work of historian Douglas Chalmers.

* Trinidad was settled as a plantation colony in the last days of Spanish rule, after a royal decree of 1783 permitted the settlement of French planters from Martinique together with their slaves. As a result, there's a significant Yoruba substratum in Afro-Trinidadian culture, as Maureen Warner-Lewis is always eager to point out.

#85 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 05:54 PM:

Fragano, 84: Thank you. (I have to say, that's even worse than the version I learned.)

#86 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 06:51 PM:

David Harmon @ 83:

There are theories of mind which describe the selection of actions based on incoming sense data in the high-millisecond time range as evolutionary: candidate responses are generated and compete with each other until one dominates the overall output response. There are similar theories about language recognition and generation where parsing is the result of competition between candidate parse trees. And similarly for concept recognition and association.

The spatial scale of these theories is small with respect to the size of the brain¹; the temporal scale is long with respect to transmission of neural potentials but short with respect to the full cycle time from sensory input to motor output. So I'm not saying that the brain is an ecology, but that there are evolutionary and population-like interactions among semi-independent subsystems within the brain.

1. My own guess is that the appropriate scale is at the level of transforms between one or more maps of neural sheets in the cortex, but I can't say it's a really educated guess. It's just that self-organized maps seem like such an obvious way to implement persistent context-sensitive associations.

#87 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 07:04 PM:

Chris W:

I'm far outside my knowledge here, but it sure seems to me that complex social phenomena like this always have multiple causes.

#88 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 08:05 PM:

Via Talking Point Memo, this is an article about the remembered history of pre-war Eastern European shtetls. It's an interesting discussion of the way this set of pictures has manipulated the way this vanished culture is understood.

#89 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 08:11 PM:

This seems like a good place to put in another plug for Barbara Hambly's "Benjamin January" mystery series, starting with A Free Man of Color. It's set in New Orleans during the 1830s -- a little after the Louisiana Purchase, a generation prior to the Civil War -- and IMO Hambly does an outstanding job of charting the ongoing tensions between the French who had been living there all along, the Americans who were moving in, and the free colored who lived among both as a parallel culture.

Hambly's protagonist is a Paris-trained medical doctor who makes his living as a musician because he can't be hired as a physician; his half-sister Dominique is in the colored demimonde, while his full sister Olympe is a voodooienne. The only significant break with reality (which I forgive as being necessary to the story) is his unlikely alliance with a highly-placed member of the New Orleans Police, a man who is amazingly un-racist given his stated cultural background. There are 8 books in the series, which (sadly) seems to have stalled out -- I haven't seen a new one in about 5 years.

#90 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2010, 09:13 PM:

Bruce Cohen #86: Fine, but selection and competition by themselves don't make evolution -- they're only one post of the triad (together, "differential selection"). Reproduction in kind, and heritable variation being the other two, I don't feel that simply accumulating ("remembering") feedback signals covers them..

PS: If you want to continue this discussion, my part will have to wait for tomorrow, as I'm due for an early bed. It's been a tiring couple of days....

#91 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2010, 11:51 AM:

Lee @ 89 -- According to Amazon, Hambly has another book in that series coming out in May: Dead And Buried.

I noticed one of her books on the "recent acquisitions" shelf at my library the other day -- I gather that she's been doing some Civil War historicals.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.