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 HS HS Associates Bachelors Graduate
Britain 8 47 9 23 14
Nordic 7 46 9 25 13
Dutch 11 61 5 20 4
Irish 11 57 8 16 8
German 9 55 8 19 9
Scottish 4 54 9 23 10
American 23 63 6 4 5

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.

The summer of ’99

Every generation has its nostalgia. Some of them have their year. For the boomers it’s the summer of ’67. For Bryan Adams it was the summer of ’69. For people born between 1965 and 1980, I will bet the summer of 1999 is that special summer. It was near the end of the long boom of the 1990s, and the United States of America was the hyperpower. We hadn’t gotten mired in wars, and terrorism seemed like a nuisance.

Bringing back street kids

Just spent some time with a friend. He lives in a safe neighborhood, so I asked if there were any kids for his kids (they’re young) to play with. Apparently not really.

In this country today we have problems with racial and wealth inequality. There are huge debates about how we address these issues. And they don’t seem like they are going away any time soon.

But huge numbers of Americans adults grew up on the mean streets of the 1980s. We know there is a solution to childhood social isolation, because many of us grew up playing on streets, rather than being shepherded on ‘play dates.’ This is also an issue which most people agree on as a problem. We can solve this.

Our civilization’s Ottoman years

Some right-wing intellectuals are wont to say that multicultural and multiracial empires do not last. This is not true. Historically there are plenty which lasted for quite a long time. Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottomans, to name just a few of the longest. But, though they were diverse polities modern liberal democratic sensibilities would have been offended by them. That is because these empires were ordered and centered around a hegemonic culture, with other cultures accepted and tolerated on the condition of submission and subordination.

The Ottoman example is the most stark because it was formally explicit under the millet system by the end of its history, though it naturally evolved out of Islamic conceptions of the roles of dhimmis under Muslim hegemony. For 500 years the Ottomans ruled a multicultural empire. Yes, it decayed and collapsed, but 500 years is a good run.

I bring up the Ottoman example because I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, an academic, and he brought up the idea that the seeming immiseration of the middle to lower classes in developed societies will lead to redistributive economic policies. Both of us agree that immiseration seems on the horizon, and that no contemporary political movement has a good response. But I pointed out that traditionally redistributive socialism seems most successful in relatively homogeneous societies, and the United States is not that. American society is diverse. Descriptively multicultural. There would be another likely solution.

Eleven years ago Amartya Sen wrote a piece for The New Republic which could never get published in the journal today, The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism. In it he looked dimly upon the emergence of plural monoculturalism. Today plural monoculturalism is the dominant ideal of the identity politics Left, with cultural appropriation in vogue, and separatism reminiscent of the 1970s starting to come back into fashion. Against plural monoculturalism he contrasted genuine multiculturalism. I think a better word for it is cosmopolitanism.

The Ottoman ruling elite was Sunni Muslim, but it was cosmopolitan. The Sultan himself often had a Christian mother, while during the apex of the empire the shock troops were janissary forces drawn from the dhimmi peoples of the Balkans. This was a common feature of the Islamic, and before them Byzantine and Roman empires. The ruling elites exhibited a common ethos, but their origins were variegated.

Many of the Byzantine emperors were not from ethnic Greek Chalcedonian Christian backgrounds (before the loss of the Anatolian territories many were of Armenian, and therefore non-Chalcedonian, origin). But the culture they assimilated to, and promoted, as the core identity of the empire was Greek-speaking and Chalcedonian, with a self-conscious connection to ancient Rome. I can give similar examples from South Asia or China. Diverse peoples can be bound together in a sociopolitical order, but it is invariably one of domination, subordination, and specialization.

But subordinate peoples had their own hierarchies, and these hierarchies interacted with the Ottoman Sultan in an almost feudal fashion. Toleration for the folkways of these subordinate populations was a given, so long as they paid their tax and were sufficiently submissive. The leaders of the subordinate populations had their own power, albeit under the penumbra of the ruling class, which espoused the hegemonic ethos.

How does any of this apply to today? Perhaps this time it’s different, but it seems implausible to me that our multicultural future is going to involve equality between the different peoples. Rather, there will be accommodation and understandings. Much of the population will be subject to immiseration of subsistence but not flourishing. They may have some universal basic income, but they will be lack the dignity of work. Identity, religious and otherwise, will become necessary opiums of the people. The people will have their tribunes, who represent their interests, and give them the illusion or semi-reality of a modicum agency.

The tribunes, who will represent classical ethno-cultural blocs recognizable to us today, will deal with a supra-national global patriciate. Like the Ottoman elite it will not necessarily be ethnically homogeneous. There will be aspects of meritocracy to it, but it will be narrow, delimited, and see itself self-consciously above and beyond local identities and concerns. The patriciate itself may be divided. But their common dynamic will be that they will be supra-national, mobile, and economically liberated as opposed to dependent.

Of course democracy will continue. Augustus claimed he revived the Roman Republic. The tiny city-state of Constantinople in the 15th century claimed it was the Roman Empire. And so on. Outward forms and niceties may be maintained, but death of the nation-state at the hands of identity politics and late stage capitalism will usher in the era of oligarchic multinationalism.

I could be wrong. I hope I am.

Over the long term civilization matters

In Peter Turchin’s work modeling human historical dynamics he introduces the idea of a “meta-ethnic” identity. Quite often this is synonymous with a world religion. These identities emerged in the last few years as human polities scaled so large as to expand beyond tribal-national boundaries.

These sorts of dynamics are clear when we think about the Crusades, the defense against the Ottomans in the 17th century, or the Iberian “division” of the world between Castile and Portugal. Common ties of civilization and identity allow for ingroup cohesion, as well as heightening hostilities against outgroups.

Of course there many exceptions. When reading The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean I recall being struck by how southern Italian city-states like Amalfi opportunistically allied with Muslim pirates against other Christian powers. Similarly, during the Battle of Vienna Protestant Hungarians marched with the Ottomans against the broader Christian alliance which came to the aid of the Habsburgs.

These are two instances which show short term self-interest or necessity driving choices of group coalitions. Amalfi, like later Italian city-states, found it in their interest to do business with Muslims, even if it was to the detriment of their co-religionists. This did not mean they were no longer Christians. But in many instances they put that identity aside for their own gains. In the case of the Protestant Hungarians there’s was an alliance of necessity.

As recounted in Divided by the Faith the decades leading up to the Battle of Vienna the Hungarians experienced a concerted campaign of conversion and persecution of the part of the Habsburg monarchy in concert withe Roman Catholic Church. The Habsburg’s Austrian lands were brought back fully into Catholicism, as was most of Imperial Hungary. It is no coincidence that Hungarian Reformed Protestantism was strong in the east, which had been under Ottoman influence. The arrival of an expansive Austrian monarchy was an existential threat for them.

The flip side are cases where groups with the same civilizational identity engage in wars over resources or boundaries. The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea would certainly fit into this mold, and to some extent the Great War in the Congo which has flared for two decades now.

This sort of dynamic has been used to argue that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is not a useful framework. But on the contrary what Turchin and colleagues have shown is that over the long run civilizational fissures tend to result in the most vicious and dehumanizing wars.

Living as Loki, friendship before Ragnarok

In Norse mythology Loki is a trickster frost giant who also plays a god. His relationship to the Aesir is complicated, but at the end of days when the world is nearing its final hours he is fated to stand against his erstwhile companions. I do not know much about the Marvel comics adaptation of Loki, though I have seen the films, and this element of alternating between good and evil is evident onscreen.

Does the fact that Loki is destined to stand against Odin negate all their experiences together? Is the full measure of a life the final act? I don’t think so.

Today we live in an age when he center is not holding. Politics and public life are polarizing. Apocalyptic language is in the air. Barack Obama was a socialist, a Communist, a Muslim. Now Donald J. Trump is the worst, thing, ever. And so on. There are two teams, and if you do not choose a team, you have lost the game before it is played. My pessimism about the possibility for a reinvigoration of a broadly liberal democratic order are for another post.

Recently my friend Heather Mac Donald wrote about her experience with protesters at Claremont McKenna. Her description of the student body’s hysterics are almost anodyne in how predictable they behaved. Rather, I was struck by how much invective Heather directed toward the silent faculty:

…Those professors also maintain that to challenge that claim of ubiquitous bigotry is to engage in “hate speech,” and that such speech is tantamount to a physical assault on minorities and females. As such, it can rightly be suppressed and punished. To those faculty, I am indeed a fascist, and a white supremacist, with the attendant loss of communication rights.

Of course not all faculty have abandoned classical liberal ideals. Nicholas Christakis and Alice Dreger are by any definition progressive liberals, but also adhere stridently to ideals of freedom of thought and speech. But both have been subject to abuse and personal attacks. They clearly fight on not because they are assured of victory, but because they believe in the justness of their cause.

Many of my liberal friends express some exasperation that I identify as conservative. But the fact of the matter is that the far Left writes off much of this country, and many of my friends, and arguably me, as a white supremacist and a fascist. Ours are not thoughts worth having in the eyes of the heirs of repressive tolerance. My liberal friends, being broad minded an of a tolerant bent, do not have sympathy with repression of thought. But at the end of the days when sides are taken what side will they choose?

I think here of an academic who is jaded and contemptuous of the infantile antics of the campus Left. He is worried that their provocations will result in the academy being targeted by the political Right. He does not relish conflict. Like me, he wants to be left alone to explore the topics which interest him. We share a mutual interest in evolutionary genetics. But, when and if the fight comes he does admit he must march with his colleagues, no matter how loony, and defend his side.

We both wish the world were not this polarized. But what we wish is not always what is. But until Ragnarok we can continue to drink beer and fight our battles shoulder to shoulder as friends. Neither of us want the Ragnarok of this liberal democratic republic to come, and I still hope it doesn’t. But we both understand that on that day we’ll be on different sides. And I’m OK with that. Life is not perfect, we do the best we can.

Addendum: Cool trailer: