Games within games

Many years ago I read Adin Steinsaltz’s The Essential Talmud. Steinsaltz was a Charedi (Chasidic more specifically) rabbi who spoke about the text and work from the perspective of an insider. One of the major insights I recalled is that to obtain esteem, eminence and status, rabbinical scholars would engage in deep exegesis of Jewish law, and work to extend the purview of Halakah. Steinsaltz was very precise that the process always involved extension, not retraction. The law grew more ornate and restrictive over time, explaining why there is a pre-modern basis for the recent vogue for veganism among very pious Jews, as a plant-based diet is by definition kosher. Some observant Jews are skeptical that any contemporary form of animal slaughter can adhere to the letter of God’s law.

From the perspective of a devout Jew, as Steinsaltz was, there is nothing more important than the law handed down from God. He was quite dismissive of secular philosophical inquiry, reiterating that the most learned rabbis imbibed such wisdom only so long as it furthered their understanding of scripture and the commentaries of their predecessors. The quest for learning undertaken by religious scholars was the most important task in the whole world for Steinsaltz, with everyone else taking on a supportive role in supporting the scholars. The production of a more unwieldy Halakah was the price one paid for getting closer to the intent behind God’s law.

But from the outside one can observe other dynamics. Arguably Jewish law was essential for maintaining the cohesion of the Jewish people for thousands of years. With the exception of schismatics, after the rise of Christianity Jews all across the world were united by their adherence to the written and oral Torah, and the rules and regulations of Halakah kept them distinct from their gentile neighbors, more, or less. In this way, religious commentary served a functional role on the scale of the community. But competition between scholars occurred in the context of a zero-sum game. There could only be one most eminent rabbi in a city. Over time individual rabbis produced more and more ornate interpretations of the law that rendered Rabbinical Judaism somewhat an odd fit in early modern Europe. There was no way that a pious Jew could integrate into the social and professional world of the gentile, so there emerged Reform Judaism (which did involve retraction of Jewish law from the lives of Jews).

The moral of this lesson is that a functional characteristic that has a group-level utility, furthering cohesion and forwarding some collective aim, can produce perverse incentives when individuals compete among each other to be the more clever and devout of all and then impose their new norms on the whole population.

I did read The Essential Talmud. But my point isn’t about Orthodox Jews, it’s about American academics. As the high priests of the hall monitor caste like to opine, “this too is problematic.”

The universality of the res publica and reality of Greco-Roman contingency

A small discussion on social media has arisen about the idea that freedom and political and social freedoms are fundamentally Western. Setting aside the libertarianism present in non-Western traditions like Daoism (David Boaz devoted a portion of Libertarianism: A Primer to this connection), more interesting are questions of the form “did the Greeks invent democracy?” My contention, broadly, is that the Greeks did not invent democracy, but all modern democracies are genealogically descended from the Greeks.

Small self-governing political units have existed in many places. Early Iron Age India for example had many statelets that are often described as “republics,” like the that of the Sakyas. If you look at the history of Mesopotamia it seems clear during the early periods some of the city-states were run on an oligarchic, not autocratic basis. Across the Iron Age, the arrow of history pointed to despotism. This is true in Greece and Rome, as the original more representative and distributed political systems slowly gave way to top-down despotism. But, the transition, especially for the Romans, was pragmatic, gradual, and de facto, rather than de jure. This means that they did not turn their backs on their republican institutions, but maintained the external facade for centuries after they were functionally powerless. The republican facade faded piecewise between the reign of Septimius Severus (who began promulgating law in his own name rather than with the figleaf of the Senate), to the emergence of the autocracy of the Tetrarchy a century later, that initiated the Dominate and the end of the Principate.

This persistence, along with Greco-Roman articulation, explication, and literary detail and depth, means that the political forms of the ancients were stored away in a manner that could be resurrected through replication in later centuries. In contrast, the Indian oligarchic Mahajapandas are historical footnotes, while the republican city-states of early Mesopotamia left no cultural descendants. I believe autocratic governmental forms are cultural adaptations. The fact that they spread across much of the world indicates they’re effective ones, but that doesn’t mean they’re “natural.” Primordial human bands were not run anarchistically, but in all likelihood, power structures were flatter than what became the norm during the Iron Age. If the democratic impulse is common why are the Greco-Roman models so critical? Because the Greco-Romans engaged in extended and copious abstraction and systematization of their social and political forms, and this process lends itself to translation into literary form. The written word is immortal and echoes down the centuries. The memories of the Mahajapandas fades. The speeches of Demosthenes persist.

Indo-European podcasts

I’ve been doing my steppe series since the spring of 2021 and will be continuing it into 2022 (chronologically). But I thought some blog readers might have missed the podcasts

Thomas Olander: the origin and spread of Indo-European languages
David Anthony: the origin of Indo-Europeans
Kristian Kristiansen: the birth of Northern Europe
James P. Mallory: finding the Indo-Europeans

(all ungated)

An exhaustion of spirit

Antonio García Martínez says much of what I would, We are no longer a serious people – When reality suddenly becomes non-optional. Read the whole thing as they say.

I will mention that Antonio recorded a podcast for my Substack. I will post it in the next few weeks at some point.

America is the world’s most innovative and wealthy nation. But there’s a hollowness about us right now we need to acknowledge.

All the world’s a stage

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has posted a reflection on her experience with ‘cancel culture’ and young people whom she helped who then turned on her immediately when the mob demanded it. This part is important:

There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.

I refuse to turn on people and denounce them on demand from the mob. You all know what I’m talking about. Some of my friends have been called on to denounce me, and some have. They are weak. Most people are weak. This period is useful because it will help us separate the true friends from those whose friendship is conditional on the winds of favor.

More generally, social media makes preening performance public and scalable in a way that it never was. The behavior described by Adichie is as old as humanity itself. The main difference is today it is produced and distributed on an industrial scale. As Ray Kurzweil likes to say, information technology is exponential…

Verwoerd’s revenge

Update: They removed the affinity groups from the public page.

I don’t write much about the culture war because it seems that one side won, and it’s not my side. If my side is going to win, it won’t be through arguing. In the early 9th century the Patriarch of the Church of the East in Bagdhad had to defend Christianity in the court of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Obviously, he had to tread lightly. This was not a debate he was going to win. The goal was not to lose too badly. This is where I feel the ‘non-woke’ faction among cultural elites is. Just not losing is the victory. But in the long run, the Church of the East went into decline. If you even feign the shahada, the punishment for apostasy is social death.

So I don’t try to argue in public. Resistance needs to be in private because public attention is an invitation to get targeted.

But sometimes something so ridiculous comes on my radar that it warrants public comment.

Over at Bari Weiss’ Substack, she posted a piece from a teacher at an elite private school, I Refuse to Stand By While My Students Are Indoctrinated. This part jumped out at me:

Recently, I raised questions about this ideology at a mandatory, whites-only student and faculty Zoom meeting. (Such racially segregated sessions are now commonplace at my school.)

This seems crazy to me. Racial segregation? I wondered on Twitter how common this sort of thing is. It must be an aberration, no? Well, a friend who is faculty at Michigan State screenshotted an email he received (this is on a public page too).

I’m going to blockquote a portion if you don’t want to click to enlarge:

We invite attendees to participate in an affinity group during the Student Success Spring Conference. Affinity (or caucus) groups provide spaces for people to work within their own identity groups. To advance racial equity, there is work for white people and people of color to do separately and together. For white people, an affinity group provides time and space to work explicitly and intentionally on understanding white culture and white privilege and to increase one’s critical analysis around these concepts. For people of color, a caucus is a place to work with peers to address the impact of racism, to interrupt experiences of internalized racism, and to create a space for healing and working for individual and collective liberation.

If you are “woke” you see nothing wrong with this I assume. And that’s fine, we understand each other. On the Last Day, we’re on different sides. There’s no possibility of meeting in the middle.  No compromise. I’m marked as to who I am. You know me as an enemy or friend, and there’s really no ambiguity about that. And I will know some of you too! I call you friend now sincerely, but on the Last Day I’ll show you as much loyalty as I’ve received from you.

But what about the rest? There are many academics who find these racial affinity groups disturbing. But they are busy with research. Do they need the hassle of speaking out about these things? Enough. As my friend who sent me the screenshot said: this is being complicit. Other academic friends tell me there is a “hidden majority.” If there is, you are all weak cowards. You count for nothing. The insanity marches and you avert your eyes. Why are you devoting your life to truth, while not confronting the abomination suffocating your institutions? This is evil.

Evil is a strong word. Some of you who are not woke, but moderate, may argue like Abraham haggling with the angels that there is some righteousness in Sodom and Gomorrah. My feelings here are quite personal. I have small children of mixed racial backgrounds. Though the infractions are minor, we’ve encountered strange things in regards to the race of my children. Both my wife and I have been disturbed by requests to clarify our children’s racial identity by school authorities. The only way I can explain what’s going on is it’s like being a Jew in 1980’s Northern Ireland and being asked if your children are Protestant or Catholic. We’re not Christian, and race isn’t super important to our identities (unlike some people). Being asked even implicitly is an imposition and we don’t appreciate our children be asked to racialize themselves (I’m being politic, we were enraged).

But the real problem I have is the white affinity groups. I am not happy with the “people of color” affinity groups either, but in some way, these have been around since the 1960’s. The emergence of white affinity groups seems a nod to the re-racialization of society as the explicit text. The fundamental issue is simple: I do not want white people to think about their race. I do not want white people to think of themselves in racial terms. The history of white Americans thinking in racialized terms is not good for people who look like me. These fools are going to get us killed!

Taking activists who are nonwhite at their word rather than self-interest, they believe white examination and embrace of their racial identity will allow for true anti-racism and justice. My rejoinder is simple: you put far too much faith in the innate goodness of these white people. My wife’s grandparents were good people, yes, but I know for a fact they were opposed to integration. They were good people, but of their time. Most people conform and follow the spirit of the times. Don’t tempt fate to think you can tame the snake of racial identity. It’s evil among all races and all people. It is always with us, but it is sin. As a brown-skinned minority in a majority-white country, I do not want white people to think in racial terms.

More concretely I cannot tolerate resegregation in this country. It would separate me from those who I care about most in the world. It would possibly separate my own children from each other. Today their differences of complexion are matters of happenstance. Perhaps in the future, it would be more important? When on Sesame Street a character says “The color of our skin is an important part of who we are” I feel a cold wind blowing. The context is much more innocuous than some have made it out to be, but for some of us, skin color is an accident.

As a quick aside, this is where some white nationalists freak out and declare “see, his mask has slipped, he’s anti-white!” Fools, I’m brown. My opposition to your kind is on my skin. I was always against you, just like I’m against the Critical Race Theory Bolsheviks. I see you two as the same thing. I always have. I’m a brown-skinned man whose ancestors took the alien name Khan and adopted a foreign religion. I have relatives across the world as we scatter. My whole lineage screams cosmopolitan. It has for hundreds of years. This is my nature, constitutive to me. Since the Axial Age there have been symbol-manipulators who transcend nations and bind peoples together ideologically. That is me and my kind.

The way I differ from some of my kind is I do not expect most humans to be like this, nor do I think it is feasible that we should force others to be like us. Human societies need to operate at some sort of equilibrium so that extreme cosmopolitans (like me) and extreme localists can coexist. The liberal democratic compromises of the late 20th century were good. They established an equipoise for a pluralistic society. What is happening now is cultural radicalism is destroying the social capital and trust that liberalism needs to survive and persist. Once the capital is exhausted people will fall back on other identities. Religion is one possibility. But race is another.

And that is why I think complicity with racially segregated groups is horrible and evil. Most people have no deep beliefs. They have shallow conformities. It’s best not to reawaken affinities and identities that have been submerged and sublimated.

Finally, the universities need to account for themselves. The public fisc will face more stress in the near future. Those of us who feel persecuted by the radicalism bred on these campuses need to stop arguing with the new commissars and ask why we’re subsidizing their livelihood. We need change the course of history or it will run us over. This is not a plea. This is a fact.

Cancellation will lead to clan

Over 25 years ago I read Daughter of the Empire, a political fantasy that prefigured elements of the “grimdark” genre. The protagonist was involved in various machinations where she had to sacrifice aspects of her humanity so that she, and her house, could survive in an amoral game of competition between nobles in the Empire of Kelawan. One of the plot points is that she makes a “calls to clan,” the clan being a collection of noble houses united by notional descent from a common ancestor. Because she has to fight another house that is far more powerful, she makes the appeal to those who are part of her lineage group to come to her aid. The other houses normally are reluctant to intervene, and there are all sorts of manipulations required to prompt the other houses to show solidarity with her.

Nevertheless, the idea exists that a group of houses bound together by kinship, fictive or real, operate as a unit against common external threats.

This is not hard to understand in terms of why these phenomena develop.

Recently, one of my readers at Brown Pundits has been vocal on Indian political events, which have gotten heated. Though he is American, he has family in India, and there has been an instance of social media harassment (or at least contact) with his cousin in that country, relating to his political views (and apparently some accusations of anti-Sikh prejudice on his part). The motives here are not important. The point is that my reader spoke out as an individual, and that has triggered a collective and coordinated action.

One of the implications of The WEIRDest People in the World is that the individualistic social context of the West must rely on rules and norms, rather than interpersonal relationships that extend to lineage groups. But, this means that there must be some element of fairness in meting out punishment.

What if punishment and attacks are capricious? What if they come en masse from a group against an individual? Over ten years ago there were issues relating to Barack Obama’s relationship to Jeremiah Wright, and some liberal journalists on an e-list were thinking about how they should defend Obama. One journalist basically proposed going on offense:

I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It’s not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright’s defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.

A decade out this seems high-minded as it serves some purpose. The reality is the way “cancellation” works today is that there is an element of capriciousness involved. There’s a positive feedback loop as major players send their “forces” against nobodies for no reason, except that the mob needs to feed. As an example of this senselessness, consider what happened to a college student in South Dakota, when a bunch of young adult fiction authors and various influencers attacked her on specious grounds. You Google her and this ridiculous controversy comes up, which basically struck her like lightning.

The problem is that people face these forces and coordinated attacks as individuals. What if that woman had a lineage group, a clan, who she could rely on that? The clan, in its turn, could seek out cyber and reputational revenge against those who attacked her. Of course, this sort of behavior erodes the norms and social capital which allows for a high trust society, but I don’t think it’s feasible for individuals to keep worrying that they’ll get sucked into the undertow and take reputational hits indefinitely. For example, I know an academic who is a conservative who donated to Donald J. Trump. Though passions have cooled, he found out last fall that some of his neighbors were thinking about making his political views an issue, likely attacking his reputation and asserting he was a racist and a fascist. Should he just accept this? The neighbors have numbers on their side and feel they can act with impunity. They won’t suffer any reputational damage or feel discomfort. But every action has an opposite and equal reaction.

Perhaps to maintain some semblance of our current culture we should take steps toward more explicit pillarisation.

When the divine becomes the devlish

Over at his blog Rod Dreher has posted an email exchange we had with the title Razib Khan, Anti-Woke Mage Of Old Religion.

Blog-on-blog interaction. Feeling a 2005 vibe!

So here’s the context: I’ve been online for twenty years and have a “name” or “reputation”, and people approach me for advice a lot. If you’re surprised, trust me, I am too. This wasn’t a life aspiration of mine, I just kind of “fell into it.” Most people who read this weblog are aware of the nature of the cultural change over the past generation. In certain institutions and careers, people have to be very careful of what they say and exposing what they believe. They don’t feel they can trust anyone, but, they do feel that they can trust me. I can put people “in touch” who are “safe” close at hand because many people tell me what they “really believe.”

Last week I put a “blind item” out:

Once there is a reasonable gap in time I feel more comfortable saying things like this. For example, the far-left socialist who has more 50,000 Twitter followers who sent me a gushing fan message on Facebook in 2008, can you guess who that is? I won’t say!

In any case, who the person above is is immaterial. The person is influential among the high-middle-brow intelligentsia, and I think that’s a good thing. But Rod messaged me and asked what I was trying to say here. What did I mean “crypto-pagan” and “Christian”?

What I don’t mean is pagan and Christian in any literal sense. I speak in coded and cryptic terms that are clear to anyone who has eyes and awareness but is hidden to the blind. Some people follow me because of an interest in evolution and genetics have conventional liberal-left views. Obviously, I don’t mind offending people, but the outraged and over-wrought responses are tiresome, and engaging with people I am cordial with takes time and energy when our priors are so incredibly different that useful conversation is impossible (e.g., “cancel culture” is a myth, and clearly the people who reach out to me are “frauds who don’t exist”). So I have found if I speak in historical analogies these people simply shrug and move on since they don’t know enough history to make heads or tails of what I’m saying. In contrast, those who are “woke” to the intellectual conformity that many chafe under often become aware over time exactly what I’m talking about, and appreciate what I’m trying to get at (I have DMs to prove this).

These sorts of exercises do cause false positives. A prominent conservative writer unfollowed me immediately after I talked proudly of being an “out” pagan, who stood against the ascendent tyranny of the Christians. Similarly, when I use analogies to the Indian caste system while talking about something totally different, I routinely get unfollows from Indians who are following but offended that I’m talking about India…even though I’m not talking about India at all.

The fundamental issue is when you have many people who read you, you want to speak in a different register to different people. So this sort of “language game” becomes highly useful. It is, after a fashion, using the “master’s tools against the master.”

Finally, this strategy is a concession that my naivete about “information wanting to be free” which is a hold-over from the 1990s is no longer something I hold to. There may not be an Inner Party, but there should be.

Addendum: Some of you may want to know exactly the sort of moments where people get “woke” and then reach out to me. In 2018 a graduate student in population genetics in a prominent lab read David Reich’s op-ed in The New York Times. They were relatively new to the field, but they agreed with the thrust of the op-ed. Their own projects involved human population genetics. They were shocked and confused when many (though not all) of their colleagues denounced the op-ed, with some casting aspersions at Reich’s mastery of the subject matter. The question that went through their head: were they insane, or was everyone around them lying?

I am quite aware that this person’s mentor is very “woke” (I use quotes for a reason) privately, but in public, they present as you would expect. Their ideological beliefs in this area were as vigorous and sincere as Ausonius’ Christianity. The graduate student reached out to me, and my “circle”, and we confirmed that yes, they were not insane. The old gods were real, and the pagan rites were true. The salvation that their colleagues proclaimed was just a damnation of the mind. Mind you, I did counsel taqiya. There are others who venerate Ali that I know still in academia. There is no need to become Husayn.

On the varieties of Marxism

Democrats’ Georgia Hopes Rest on Jon Ossoff, 33. How Did He Get Here? He’s rich. That’s it. No need to read the piece, that’s all it is. Yes, he has other attributes, but his main qualification is that he is from the leisure class. You knew that before you read the piece. This is not a huge ideological point. George W. Bush was from a wealthy and well-connected family. He had other attributes, but without the financial and social capital, he would have gone nowhere in life probably judging by his dissolute middle period.

It doesn’t really matter if you are a partisan. Ossoff will vote with the Democrats. That’s the reason to vote for him if you are a Democrat, and against him, if you are a Republican. For many years Nancy Pelosi has been one of the wealthiest members of Congress (#3 in 2018), and she’s led the Democrats without any problem.

The Democratic party is the party of the economic left. The base and the members of Congress are to the left of the average Democrat. But, as David Shor pointed out, the Democratic leadership and base are much further left in relation to the average Democrat on cultural issues. The Democrats have gotten some serious policies predicated on their economic liberalism (e.g., ACA). But, on the whole, that is small-ball in comparison to other left parties the world over.

Time’s up!

But on cultural topics things are different. Right now some stupid person is denigrating the classics as white male and worthless, etc. The usual. I still see academics use the term “Latinx” in places like The New York Times even though it’s ridiculous and opposed by the people who it purports to describe. Through the capture of media, academia, and in alliance with the corporate and governmental bureaucracy, the left is rearranging and modifying our language and categories. To be frank, I feel they are engaging in an inverted rectification of the names; attempting to make reality conform to names.

A left materialist critique of this pattern is that this is neoliberal co-option of the class struggle and transmutation of it into something that capital can control and leverage. It’s idealism. The people stay poor, but they are given the opium of the ideals of antiracism. I have right-libertarian friends who agree in some ways with this critique, but they look positively on it. They are more fearful of distortion of the market process that materialist leftists would engage in, rather than ransacking our cultural categories.

So what would you pick: Canadian single-payer healthcare with Shakespeare or no Shakespeare without single-payer? It’s a stupid contrast but it cuts to the heart of the issue. I think there are people on the right who are so well-off due to their position within capital that the rise of cultural barbarism does not concern them. They are in their gated community. What would you prefer, that they come for your tax bracket or your soul? Perhaps it depends on what bracket you’re in and if you can buy a soul.