The native and the coconut civilization

Recently a discussion emerged on Twitter about the relative success of Indians in America and Indian Americans and the origins of that success. While Noah Smith pointed to their cultural and economic status to begin the conversation, W. Bradford Wilcox noted the stability of the marriages of Indian Americans. There are lots of directions one could go with this discussion, but one response to Wilcox’s Tweet captures I think a way of thinking that is important to engage because it is influential:

Guess which immigrant group was colonized by a Western hegemonic power that indoctrinated the culture into American ideals, literally preparing them for upward assimilation? Also, Indian marriages are functionalist in nature, and not subject to ephemeral underpinnings of “love”.

One could take this as an affront to cultural or individual pride. That is, the success of Indian Americans being reduced to simply Western culture and civilization diminishes what they have achieved on their own (I’ll get back to the issue of marriage specifically).

This is not the issue that I want to explore, though I will note it here. Rather, let’s entertain the ideas and presuppositions embedded in this sort of assertion, and its correspondence to reality.

You could say that this attitude, which reduces non-Western peoples and societies as outcomes of Western history, is marginal. But the person who expressed the opinions is a graduate student in sociology, and this viewpoint does suffuse the assumptions of many educated Americans “in the know”, albeit less nakedly and brusquely expressed. Less enlightened Americans probably believe that Indian immigrants are just smart and well-educated (this is true), and that is the reason for their success (again, true). But those who are “in the know” “understand” that these sorts of reductive characteristics are outcomes of a particular historical process, and it is that historical process to which Indian American success redounds (“Well actually, British colonialism imparted bourgeois values to native allies in western India, and that’s why they succeed in the United States”).

Though I am not Indian American, I am obviously Indian American adjacent. Arriving in the United States just before elementary school, and growing up with parents raised abroad, I have a visceral understanding of intercultural dynamics which is probably not available to professional anthropologists. I am aware of elements of South Asian culture which are very different from American culture, and so am always curious about the new pattern of some Westerners to reducing South Asian culture as simply a postcolonial reaction to Western hegemony.

Obviously, on some level, the impact of that hegemony is hard to deny. Though Macaulay’s aspiration of creating “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” did not occur to full completion, the British period had a strong impact on the outlook and viewpoint of South Asian elites. Even those who were anti-colonial and anti-Western in orientation often reacted to European influence and domination. Their own nativist response would be incomprehensible without the British Other.

There is also the reality that for some aspects of culture native peoples may assert a deep and indigenous origin for practices and values, even if it is hard to imagine a particular phenomenon without European influence. A simple illustration of this is the popularity of drinking tea across the subcontinent, which arose through British commercial propaganda. Modern South Asians may not be aware of the origin of this deeply embedded aspect of their lives and assume it’s indigenous in a very deep manner.

A more subtle and rich illustration of this tendency is the Buddhist revival of 19th-century Sri Lanka. The peoples of this island have been Buddhist for a very long time, and have interacted with the Theravada societies of Southeast Asia for a thousand years. But, in the 19th-century Buddhism reformed itself in the face of Christian proselytization. Some Westerners, sympathetic to Buddhism (e.g., Henry Steel Olcott), were critical in buttressing the intellectual armamentarium of the local population. In the process, they may have influenced the self-conception of elite Sri Lankan Buddhists to perceive their religion as rationalist in a manner that was shaped by the post-Protestant Enlightenment and its critiques of Christianity. In this framework, Sri Lankan Buddhism can be thought of as fundamentally indigenous, but the movements of the last few centuries are impossible to understand without awareness of European influence, even if native Sri Lankans themselves now perceive these elements as deeply primal (i.e., the rationalist and less supernatural Buddhism is the “true Buddhism”).

Moving to the mainland of the Indian subcontinent, again it is not deniable that European colonial hegemony had a strong impact on the society. Consider that defining element of Indian civilization, caste. Some scholars have made a strong case that British systematic rationalization of governance and taxonomic anthropology of native peoples was critical in the crystallization of the caste-jati system (in particular, the 1871 Census of India). Yet genetics casts strong doubt on this claim as being the only explanation, as many jatis and broader caste groups, exhibit patterns of endogamy and relatedness which indicate the genealogical depth that is 1,000 years or more. As it happens, al-Biruni’s observations of India 1,000 years ago outlines a social structure which is broadly consonant with what we perceive to be Indian today.

What does this have to do with Indian Americans? First, it is famously well known that Indian American migration to the United States has been highly selective, biased toward individuals with high levels of skill and education. Additionally, these people are not a representative cross-section of Indians themselves in regards to ethnicity and community. There are, for example, very few individuals of Dalit background in the United States. And, there is a preponderance of individuals of higher status communities. Using the framework above, one might say that communities that have internalized European mores, outlooks, and skills, have been advantaged and that this is why they have immigrated to the United States.

The problem is that this is clearly wrong. Some communities in South Asia have been literate for thousands of years. This is well known. The Muslims who arrived as an elite class after 1000 A.D. noted which communities were literate, and elevated them into service. Additionally, other Indian groups were inducted into military service. This is not to say that South Asian class, caste, and professional affiliations have been communally static for thousands of years, but neither was the portfolio of skills and preferences arbitrarily poured into the minds of some Indians as opposed to others. Some Indian groups were useful in particular places and times to various elite groups, whether Hindu, Muslim, or British, and that utility redounded to the long-term trajectory of that community (e.g., Parsis).

In the American context, there is an underrepresentation of people from groups which are the majority of Indians, the broad peasantry. Rather, various mercantile communities and service professional communities are overrepresented (though there are farmers from the Punjab who have moved to the Central Valley). Much of the accumulated human capital in many of these groups predates the arrival of Europeans.

How a group of people reacts to new stimuli varies. The Indian Diaspora is highly skewed toward people from Gujurat and Punjab. In contrast, there are far fewer people in the United States from the upper and middle Gangetic plains, the civilizational heart of India (a fair number of peasants from these localities did migrate to Trinidad, Mauritius, and Fiji). The literate elites and landowners the Gangetic plain have not reacted to the legacy of European colonialism and globalization in the same manner as the literate elites and landowners of Gujarat. Some of this is happenstance, but some of it is probably the reality that Gujarat has long been integrated into the Indian Ocean trade networks, which even predates Islam.

This sort of analysis need not be restricted to South Asia. When Europeans encountered the Japanese in the 16th-century they were struck by their industry and ability to imitate and perfect new technologies. The isolation imposed by the Tokugawa in the early 17th-century dampened this perception for centuries, but after the reopening of Japan in the 19th-century the same underlying parameters came to the fore. The Japanese remained distinct, but also assimilated many Western techniques and social structures.

In this globalized world roiled by economic change and characterized by migration, there is a temptation to fall into the trap of simplistic theorizing. We must avoid that temptation if we are to understand the true shape of a thing, rather than the fictions one could spin-out from our theories and preconceptions.

Going back to the starting point of his post: the strong economic performance and robust families of Indian Americans is not just a function of hegemonic Western values. These people are not simply persons Indian in blood and color, but white in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect, though there is something of that, especially by generation 1.5 and above. But the entrepreneurial aspect of some Guju communities, to give an example, illustrates that folkways derived from the South Asian context have been transmitted to the United States. The “joint-family” is quintessentially Indian, and though it is not common among Indian Americans, it likely casts a shadow on Indian American family life (additionally, divorce is very taboo for many Hindus). Most Indian Americans today are immigrants, raised abroad, and their orientation and mores are fundamentally distinct from the native-born and native-raised.

Of course, assimilation happens. But even that is contingent. The America that the children of Indian Americans are growing up in is highly polarized and post-Christian. This has some downstream consequences for how 21st-century immigrants and their children view themselves in the body politic.

To catch a hypocrite: looking up revealed preferences

One of the strange things about the whole Justin Trudeau brown/black-face affair is that it makes someone like me, nonwhite, but unconvinced of the extreme racism of most white people, reflect a bit. I spent my formative years in overwhelmingly white environments and didn’t encounter that much racism. I did not know anyone who did black or brown-face. Or so I think. Could it be that behind my back this what a lot of white people were doing?

I’m skeptical, but I’m not sure.

That being said, Justin Trudeau is a certain type of “progressive” white person when it comes to racial matters who puts a lot of stock in symbolics. So this is pretty bizarre for him to have done repeatedly. My own personal issue with this is always that I don’t see these people revealing in their life choices that they believe all the stuff about diversity they say. These people marry white people, and they live among white people, and are friends with mostly white people, all the while talking loudly about how nonwhite people are awesome! (though to be frank my personal experience is once you disagree with a woke white person you are not so awesome anymore even if you are from a “community of color”….)

With the beauty of the internet, there is a simple way to check if some people “walk the walk.” A few days ago an educational consultant of some sort decried “dead white males.” The person was himself a white male. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see if this person who believes in diversity walked the walk of diversity. Within a few minutes, I uncovered the fact that this person lived in a 94% white neighborhood tract according to the census (the city in which he lives is 78% white).

This person, the author of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap and Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education has done quite well for himself. The house in which he lives is valued at $456,000 dollars in a city where the median home value is $280,100.

So how did I find all this out in a few minutes?

  1. Look up someone in Family Tree Now. I checked the CV of the person above to get a sense of age and where they had lived. Family Tree Now tells you where people have lived as well as their ages, so it allows one to make a positive identification.
  2. The easiest way to lookup demographics is Justice Map. It draws on census data. Put the address in, and you’ll see the racial demographics visually.
  3. Zillow has home values.

Why are these tools relevant? Sometimes it is useful to know where someone has “come from.” For example, it is easy to find out if particular people speaking on class issues who seem to be vague about their own background come from the upper-middle-class (lookup where they lived and the value of the home in which they grew up). Usually, when someone doesn’t mention their class background in this context they are privileged or grew up as such.

The racial stuff is more interesting because there is constant talk about it today in the United States. But in the choices well-educated Americans make they exhibit underlying beliefs and preferences often at variance with their averred values (at least once they have children; diversity is something of a ‘life phase’).

Sometimes the results of this snooping can be weird. Recently a black education professor at NYU wrote an op-ed weirdly stating that elite schools were eugenic. I mention his race because this warrior for social justice happens to live on a block that is 89% white near the NYU campus.

American culture in 2019


I think cultural influence and power outlasts and lags peak military or economic power. Greek culture with the rise of Rome, Roman culture during the post-Roman period in the West, and Italian art as the locus of power was shifting north in Europe during the early modern period. The glamor of culture, history, and the past, can echo down centuries after temporal power fades (ask the Bishop of Rome!).

So it will be with American culture. But there’s also something in our highly exportable popular culture which is becoming highly derivative, recycling 20th-century motifs over and over. Influential, but perhaps not original.

But should we be embarrassed by this? Or surprised? The Italian peninsula had a second efflorescence during the Renaissance, but Greece has never been as influential or original as it was in the 5th century BC.

Having a common name in a post-Dunbar’s number world

I’m not sure I believe the model outlined in Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. I’m not even sure about the specific details of Dunbar’s number. But, the overall insight, that the vast majority of human history has been defined by small groups with people you see again and again had an impact on our psychology seems robust.

The connotations of the very word “stranger” are complex but generally lean to the negative. And I think that makes sense. One of the tasks of cultural norms and values is to figure out a way that strangers can be interacted with in non-zero sum relationships.

All of this is to preface a banal assertion about interaction in day-to-day life if you are a middle-class professional. I get a lot of emails from people with common names, and it’s a non-trivial cognitive load to figure out if I should pay attention or not. Names like “David”, “John”, and “Omar” are so common that I’ve actually ignored people I shouldn’t because I didn’t realize it was that David or Omar. I’ve almost even responded to the wrong person when two people with the same first name are emailing me at the same time.

In a premodern village or a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer tribe, having a common name on a population-wide scale wasn’t a big deal. The people you would address by name regularly was far less than 100 over a year. But in today’s world, some people have to interface with ten different strangers per day, along with all the “regulars.”

If I was a parent considering names, this would be something that I would take into account. It’s probably not optimal to have a very rare name, because people might misspell it or misremember it, though it will be salient. But having a very common name can also be annoying, to the point where many people with common names now go by their middle name or a nickname. Rather, a familiar but not-so-common name is probably optimal.

To give an example, the name “Dennis” is not too common for people my age (as opposed to “David”). If I get an email from a “Dennis” there is only one or two people it could be.

Good night Avicii, you lived before you died

Like many people I didn’t know much about Avicii when he was alive, though I know much more now that he has died. His stuff played while I was on the computer in the lab, or when I was working out. Avicii for me was the anti-Kardashian, as I had no idea who “he” (I wasn’t sure of gender though I assumed he was male)was, where he was from. He was just a DJ who made music, and I enjoyed the music. He wasn’t famous to me, but his music was famous.

The continuity of a people

From a comment below [edited]:

The Chinese and Egyptians are an interesting case in this because they had one of the earliest written scripts (or rather tradition across generations to impart and carry information) and it was spread over long surviving/thriving timelines.

But then Egyptians lost the linguistic capability and lost their history even though they had archaeological structures all around them.

Language IS Culture. Literally.

There is only so much oral tradition can do. Even if it survives the population scale that carrier it becomes smaller and smaller and the cultural pressures from the majority overwhelm or dilutes the narrative 1000 years later. This happened in India. People forgot/evolved their ancestry even if there were a gross minority of class who remembered their class’s origin myths in a certain way.

From a purely reductive and spare understanding of human flourishing, this is irrelevant trivia.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was no great loss. They were stone. Carved by man. That might be a Benthamite view. It would be a Salafi view.

But most people don’t think this way.

One of the themes of Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is that the temple institutions persisted over thousands of years. Even as dynasties turned over, the temples maintained a link to the past. Though many of their cultural characteristics were disappearing by the time of Ptolemies the Egyptians of this period still exhibited continuity with their ancestors. The hieroglyphic system actually was used down to 400 AD. The last inscription is dated to 394 at the temple of Philae. Philae continued in operation down to the 6th century, before it was closed by Justinian.

Other documents indicate knowledge of the hieroglyphic system into the 5th century AD. But the destruction of the old temples, the old customary religion, was the death of the old history and identity.

The Chinese continuity is striking because it is true that down the last years of Imperial China in the early 20th century the literati could access the entire corpus of Chinese though back 2,000 years. Dynasties fell, but unlike the West, there was no rupture with antiquity.

The case of India is interesting because I would argue Hindu Indians have maintained continuity with the civilization of India as it had matured in the centuries around the invasion of Alexander the Great. The Brahmins have maintained Vedic texts and the Sanskrit language. Those from the Abrahamic traditions sometimes contemptuously refer to Hinduism as “pagan,” but there is some truth in this, insofar as the religion grew and accrued itself organically from the native cultural traditions.

Today China is promoting “Confucius Institutes” as part of its “soft power.” Chinese who lived in the late 1960s would find this very strange, as they had abolished Confucius and were overturned the culture, the civilization, of China. But such tumult is not sustainable. I wonder if we are going through the same thing in the West. If so, perhaps we too will be promoting Plato institutes a generation from now?

The duty to kill your friend

In the late 1980s Morgan Llwellyn wrote a novelization of the legends of Cu Chulainn, Red Branch.

One of the most dramatic passages involves the fight between Cu Chulainn and Ferdiad mac Daman. In the end Cu Chulainn kills Ferdiad (in a rather underhanded manner), because they were champions who represented rival tribal confederacies in Iron Age Ireland. But it was poignant in part because they were also very good friends.

Most of you do not know me personally, obviously. But those of you who do know me from undergraduate years (and a few of those do read this blog!) also know that one of my closest friends from that time is now a Gender Studies professor at a major research university. We stopped being as close when she went to do her study abroad and we sort of drifted apart, but we are still friends on Facebook, and despite our sharp divergences on social and political issues I can’t exactly deny and negate the history that we had. That’s part of who both of us are today.

And yet we both implicitly know we’re on opposite sides in the culture war. And that’s fine by me. Not everything is political. And even if you have to do your duty in the end and stand with your own tribe when the rubber hits the road, you don’t need to deny the humanity in others.

Asabiyyah in Steve King’s Iowa

If I reflect on my nearer extended family one curious aspect is that we seem to have a habit of moving a fair amount. My immediately family immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. But we’ve relocated a few times since we moved to this country, going from one coast to another. But this pattern is older and deeper. My maternal grandfather was a physician who moved rather frequently during my mother’s youth, while both my parents settled in Dhaka, the capital, though they were from the region to the south and east of that city. I have relatives in England, while a second cousin married and had a family in Venezuela, before eventually settling down in Sweden. Other relatives near and more distant have had sojourns in the Middle East, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Australia.

Of course, this isn’t entirely surprising, as around ~4 percent of the population of Bangladesh lives abroad. But even in this country, we keep moving. My mother laments sometimes that her children seem to settle in distant parts of the country from her, but she has to remind herself that she was across several oceans when her parents died.

So I take great anthropological interest in articles such as this in The New Yorker, Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On. In the piece, the author sketches out the peculiarities of a small town in western Iowa, Orange City, where people live around those whom they grew up with. Almost as if they develop the intimacies we associate with hunter-gatherer life.

Settled by Dutch immigrants more than 100 years ago, Orange City, Iowa, retains its peculiar ethnic character to this day. It is overwhelmingly white and dominated by Reformed Protestantism. But this isn’t the story of just one town. This piece is really outlining a microcosm of the sort of thing that happens on a larger scale in southwest Michigan, in towns like Holland. This area is also Dutch American in character, and somehow manages to retain economic vitality in an American landscape defined by the dynamism of a few large metropolitan conglomerations.

If you read Peter Turchin’s work you will note that what Dutch America has is asabiyyah. Social solidarity.

Part of this is likely the broad homogeneity of these regions. The sort of social capital eroded by the forces of diversity that Robert Putnam observed in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But that can’t be the only part of the story. Much of Appalachia exhibits the same ethno-racial homogeneity of Dutch America, but it’s social statistics are not nearly as positive.

To understand what’s going on one needs to read books such as Albion’s Seed, American Nations or The Cousins’ Wars. These works outline that there are deep and lasting cultural differences among groups of white American Protestants who do not seem “ethnic” in any way moderns understand it. After the Civil War and up to the 1950s white Americans cultivated an ideology of cohesion which smoothed over differences which led to the fractures that broke out in the decades which culminated in the Age of Sectionalism. Central to this self-conception was the normative identity of white Protestants, whom both Jews and Catholics emulated explicitly and implicitly, respectively.

And yet differences persisted underneath the surface. From the piece:

The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted to leave—they were pushed.

In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places….

The ACS reports that the largest ancestry components among Iowans were German (35.9%), Irish (13.7%), English (8.5%), American (6.2%), and Norwegian (5.2%). Genetically there is almost no difference between these Northern European groups (they all diverged over the last 4,500 years). But culturally there are differences. “American,” and to a lesser extent Irish and English, ancestry may correlate with migration from the South and the Border States. In contrast, English ancestry was at least in part derived from Yankee settlers from New England. These were very different cultures. Europeans from Scandinavia and Germany tended to align culturally more with the Yankees (with the major exception of alcohol, which set apart the newcomers from the old stock, who had an ambivalent relationship with drink).

In Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution the authors report that in Illinois farmers of British descent behaved differently than those of German descent even after 150 years. Germans tended to pass farms down through the family, forgoing profits in cases where they could sell. In contrast farming families of British ancestry tended to behave more like the rational actors predicted by the theory of the firm. They did not make as many sacrifices to keep farms in the family.

These differences among white Protestants are still clear in the General Social Survey. Limiting to self-identified white non-Hispanic Protestants surveyed after the year 2000, below you can see the highest degree attainments by ethnic identification:

Highest degree attainment of white Protestant Americans, year 2000 and after
 Less than HSHSAssociatesBachelorsGraduate
Britain84792314
Nordic74692513
Dutch11615204
Irish11578168
German9558199
Scottish45492310
American2363645

The white Protestants who identify as “American” tend to be concentrated in the border states and in the South. They are not as educated as other white Americans. They are a plural majority in much of Appalachia and are also likely dominant among white populations in areas of the South where the black proportion is higher. These “Americans” are of broadly British and Irish origin, but their residence in this country has been long enough that they no longer identify with Europe in any way.

If you read some history or plumb the depths of social science the uniqueness of Orange City, Iowa, is entirely unsurprising. The “secret” of Orange City is the same secret that the German towns of Wisconsin and the Dutch towns of southwest Michigan exhibit, and that is a cultural folkway passed down through the generations which allows for cohesion and collective action in a world of increasing anomie. The culture of the back-country white settlers in Appalachia, in contrast, was defined from its inception by a certain form of libertarian anomie.

Curiously The New Yorker piece highlights a similarity in social structure between Appalachia and modern urban life: “In Philadelphia, she’d had her close friends, and everyone else was more or less a stranger; in Orange City, there was a large middle category as well. ” Though I am not denigrating communal collective action in Appalachia, it is also true that that region has been characterized by a form of familialism. Though Appalachian whites were enthusiastic Christians, their religion was often individualistic. Their elites hewed to an ordered Presbyterianism, but the masses were pietistic Methodists or Baptists. It was an atomized society.

Modern cosmopolitan urban life is also characterized by the chasm between the stranger and the close friend or kin. To make life tolerable one must rely on the impartiality and efficiency of institutions, which can reduce the transaction costs between strangers, and force trust externally.

What will happen if and when institutions collapse? I do not believe much of America has the social capital of Orange City, Iowa. We have become rational actors, utility optimizers. To some extent, bureaucratic corporate life demands us to behave in this manner. Individual attainment and achievement are lionized, while sacrifice in the public good is the lot of the exceptional saint.

But we will have to rediscover trust in something beyond the bureaucracy and the family, or the swell of barbarism will probably consume us.

The great rollback

Derek Thompson in The Atlantic has a piece up, How to Survive the Media Apocalypse, which gets at something I’ve come to believe:

Advertising has been critical to the affordable distribution of news for a century and a half in the U.S. Today’s media companies don’t have to reach all the way back to the early 1800s for a business plan, to when newspapers were an elite product, selling at the prohibitive price of six pennies per bundle. But they are going back in time, in a way, and excavating a dusty business model that relies more on readers, and less on advertisers, than the typical online publisher….

There are two groups of people who as readers truly value the truth in anything but the workaday (e.g., weather, traffic reports, etc.): nerds and those with money on the line.

The idea that news is about giving people the Truth is a conceit that was never attainable, but the American media had aspirations. Really most people want to be entertained, amused and vindicated. Conservatives complaining about the perceived Leftward drift of The New York Times who cancel their subscriptions are accelerating an inevitable process (as the readership gets more and more liberal). The fat profits generated by both advertising, in particular classifieds, and subscriptions, allowed the 20th-century media to not be beholden to one master. This is a new world, though a generation that grew up in the old world has not internalized the now.

Outfits which are geared toward the wealthy or business, such as Bloomberg, will retain a more straightforward positivist orientation. Facts will basically be a luxury consumption good, as well an input necessary for greater productivity on the margins for efficient allocation of capital. Those journals with mass audiences will fragment and develop sharper viewpoints and pay less attention to facts if they impede sensationalism and audience preferences. Basically, we’re going to become Britain!

Thompson’s reference back to the early 1800s made me think of Carl Friedrich Gauss. Like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Gauss did not have absolute leisure to pursue intellectual activities. At some point, he was employed as a surveyor in Hanover. To the modern mind, this was a terrible waste of incredible talent. It is for this sort of reason that institutions of higher education with some independence arose to give scholars leisure and freedom to pursue their interests.

But will it always be so? The science fiction genre of steampunk obtains its novelty from injecting advanced technology into a Victorian world on its own terms. Perhaps in a few decades, many of our social and cultural arrangements will seem very quaint and antiquated to those of us who came into maturity in the fin de siècle of the 20th century, with all culture was mass culture.

Against the rectification of names of the enemy

Since the beginning of this weblog, a particular tick that is common to humans emerges over and over. A tick that is seductive, inevitable, and which I periodically react negatively to (and surely do engage in). That tick is the one where peculiar or exotic terms, or common terms in specific senses, are deployed to demarcate ingroup vs. outgroup.

This is clearly illustrated by example. Libertarians will often call non-libertarians statists. In some ways, this is a defensible term descriptively. But statists never call themselves statists, and often are confused what that even means. Really the term “statist” is just a way you can tell other libertarians that this person is not of the tribe. It’s not about communicating with the statist in question. It’s about labeling them…a witch!

Another example is ally. This is a banal and general word, but on the cultural Left it’s become transformed into a very specific thing. If you are a white male, you are by constitution an oppressor with privilege, so you must by necessity aim toward being an ally. Ally here means those with privilege joining the struggle against oppression and the liberation of marginalized people.

Almost all of the above terms are pretty standard English words, but bundled together into that paragraph you know the perspective and Weltanschauung it’s expressing.

In the United States those who oppose the right to an abortion because they think the fetus is a person define themselves as pro-life.  Those who support the right to an abortion define themselves as pro-choice. Pro-choice people sometimes call pro-life people anti-choice, while pro-life people call pro-choice people pro-abortion. The terms themselves are not important as descriptions. Rather, they’re about tribal mobilization.

On occasion, I’ve seen the term TERF, for trans-exclusionary feminist. The people who are called TERFs never call themselves TERFs. Often people who are denounced as TERFs don’t see to be TERFs at all.

When someone brings up the term “civic nationalism,” I’m usually pretty sure that that person is probably a white nationalist, because that’s a term that they seem to use a lot (to describe non-racial nationalists). People who are civic nationalists don’t describe themselves as such in normal conversations.

Because my views are generally more conservative than liberal people on the Right often believe that I am aware of all the tribal divisions and lexical nuances deployed by conservatives today. Or, more honestly people who spend a lot of time reading and discussing politics online with the tribe. I have finite time, I don’t really really track of all the new fashionable terms. Political philosophy and history interest me, but the contemporary ephemera, not so much. One of the most irritating aspects of “Neoreaction” was that they had all those terms which made no sense to outsiders without a glossary.

This sort of behavior makes sense ingroup. But when you start spouting off in public forums with new-fangled vocabulary accessible to the initiates you exclude them. Which is fine, but you also make it clear you just want to hear yourself talk.

Though sometimes scientists are guilty of this sort thing, by and large the utilization of words in a peculiar context has a precise meaning which is clear and distinct. For example, the term heritable. Transformed into heritability, it is the proportion of variance in the phenotype explained by variance in the genotype. Now could say “the proportion of variance in the phenotype explained by variance in the genotype” every time, but it’s usually easier just to say “heritability.”

I’ve made it pretty clear I take a dim view of the prospects for this liberal democracy of ours over the next generation or so. A day shall come when you stand with the Frost Giants or you stand with the Aesir. There’s really no avoiding a choice. I would recommend on that day pick you pick the strongest side, not who you think is the right side. Power is truth, truth is not power.

But this day is not that day. Until then there is still time to listen and cultivate one’s mind. Let’s dispense with bleeding private language into public. It’s just unseemly.