To beat the dragon be the dragon

In The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire Kyle Harper argues that the Plague of Cyprian, between 249 to 262 A.D., served as a massive exogenous shock to the Roman Empire that changed history. Harper observes that the structures of Roman society were reordered in the face of near collapse and exhaustion due to the onslaught of disease. The Plague of Cyprian, at least in Harper’s telling, plays a major role in the rise of Christianity and the fading away of the traditional religion (more through the inability of the old pagan institutions to persist in the face of social instability as opposed to a crisis of faith).

But the change was more than cultural. It is well known that Augustus, the first of what we call Roman Emperors, styled himself Princeps, and maintained the external fiction that he restored the republic. The term Imperator was not applied regularly to Roman Emperors until the reign of Vespasian, in the last quarter of the 1st century A.D., nearly a century after Augustus came to power. But even then the rulers of the Roman world maintained a conceit and fiction that they were scions of the old republican world, the first among the aristocrats. This was certainly true of Marcus Aurelius, who famously styled himself something of a philosopher-king as well.

After the disastrous reign of Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, the dynasty founded by Septimius Severus moved in a more nakedly autocratic direction. Severus notably presented laws to the Senate as expressions of his fiat will. But Severus was from the old aristocracy of Rome. He underwent the cursus honorum under the Antonines.

The true shift came during the late 3rd-century and the rise of the Tetrarchs. These military rulers, who came out of the barracks of the Illyrian legions, ushered in the Dominate. This is the despotic later phase of the Roman Empire and derives from the fact that Diocletian added dominus, lord or master, to one of his titles. Diocletian and his successors did not see the need for the pretense that their world was that of the Republic. It was fundamentally different. They accrued to themselves the powers and styles of despotic eastern rulers.

Why? The shock of the Plague of Cyprian induced instability in the Roman world, which a powerful ruler stabilized. But according to Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire the Romans were reacting to the emergence of the Sassanians, who had reconfigured Persia to be a more formidable rival to Rome.* The irony here is that just the Persians became the great enemy of Rome, the Emperors of Rome began to resemble their eastern rivals in their external form and internal self-identity.

* Adrian Goldsworthy disagrees that Sassanian Persia was so formidable, ascribing the military parity more to Roman decay than the rise of Iran.

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How Europe became the Faith

Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome is a work of monumental scholarship. The late author was a master of the textual sources to such an extent that no non-specialist can truly comprehend the force of his argument or its veracity in a deep manner. That being said, the book is essential reading in large part because it is an armamentarium against a conventional argument that the victory of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was established and sealed by the victory of Theodosius the Great at the Battle of the Frigidus in 394. And, that that victory was contingent upon that battle.

The standard model is that the rise of Christianity among the ruling class of the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine in the first decades of the 4th-century triggered a conservative traditionalist reaction, centered around prominent Roman Senators, precipitating out into armed resistance in the 390s. The rebellion against Theodosius is framed as a pagan cause against the devoutly Christian ruler.

Cameron rejects this whole narrative to a great extent as a projection of contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations with the ancient past. The Last Pagans of Rome presents the case that it was Gratian’s removal of public subsidies from the traditional cults in the early 380s which marked the turning point.

The term “case” must be used because the author is so convinced of his argument and conclusions (reached after a lifetime of scholarship), that the text comes across as almost lawyerly in its tone. At some point, you realize that whenever there is ambiguity and uncertainty, the conclusion will always be drawn in a way so as to buttress the thesis favored by the author, rather than simply leaving the uncertainty as is. Whereas those presenting the contrasting thesis (that pagan revival and resistance was real in the 390s)  might assume that a particular individual was a pagan, Cameron points out various reasons to be uncertain about this inference, and often will conclude “it is just as likely or perhaps more like that this person was a Christian!”

In the footnotes of The Final Pagan Generation, a more sober work, you actually see comments which argue that Cameron pushes his case for the decline and extinction of paganism too far.

Despite this qualm, I believe that Cameron’s thesis is broadly correct. First, it is entirely reasonable to suggest and suspect that modern authors are laundering their own romantic preoccupations into their interpretation of the past. I myself have been known to portray Quintus Aurelius Symmachus as a paragon of broad-minded latitudinarian tolerance, in sharp contrast with the narrow-minded intolerant scold, St. Ambrose. This is a common reflex among those given nourishment by the values of the Enlightenment.  The Last Pagans of Rome casts doubt on the way in which these men have been depicted historically, suggesting that their own self-conceptions and place in society was fundamentally different from what we might assume (to obtain powerful Christian sympathy, Symmachus had to portray himself as a tolerant individual. To maintain Christian respect, Ambrose had to show that he was a zealout).

Second, our understanding of the anthropology of religion of the past flattens the true realities and imposes cartoonish identities which likely did not correspond with anything real. Our modern idea of religion and society is conditioned on the sectarian conflicts in the West in the wake of the Reformation, as well as the formal separation of confessions enriched in the legal framework of Islam. That is, individuals are seen to have delimited and exclusive identities. Though this framework is somewhat a difficult fit in South and East Asian societies, they have nevertheless integrated and accepted it in some fashion due to the hegemonic influence of the modern West, and in South Asia the historical legacy of Islamic rule.

Obviously none of this applied to the late Roman Empire. Though Christianity made exclusive claims upon its believers, just as the Jewish God made exclusive claims on the Jews, pagan religiosity was pluralistic and promiscuous. It was integrative, non-exclusive, and diffusely delimited. This was, in fact, one of the reasons that Judaism and Christianity became influential and widely practiced in the ancient world. In The Fate of Rome, the author suggests that civic public paganism declined in the late 3rd-century, after the Plague of Cyprian, and well before Constantine’s conversion. One could argue that the centrality and dominance of Christianity in the 4th-century had less to do with victory in the competition with paganism, than the fact that there was a vacuum at the center of the state which Christianity was suited to fill.

In The Last Pagans of Rome  Cameron suggests that the elite pagans of the late 4th-century were not religious fanatics. On the contrary, their priestly duties were hereditary marks of prestige and status, rather than earned piety. One of the major reasons that they likely lagged in their adherence to the new favored religion was that it did not have a patina of prestige. As noted in Through the Eye of the Needle and The Making of the Christian Aristocracy, class prejudice, and snobbery against the decidedly middle-brow character of Christianity retarded adoption by the elite. The class origins of the early Christians was evident in the early translations of the Bibles into Latin: they were not of the aristocratic variant, but a more common register. Only when aristocrats began to convert to Christianity and join the Church in large numbers did the religion become part and parcel of the identity of elite society.

The elite of the Roman world had seen sects and cults come and go. In the late 1st-century, Vespasian brought an affection for Isis to the center of the Roman world, while in the early 3rd-century a priestly Syrian family ascended to the purple. In the late 3rd-century Solar religion and Mithraism became quite popular. It is entirely likely that the many 4th-century Roman Senators viewed the rise of Christianity as just another religion, that would have its time in the sun and fade.

Cameron in The Last Pagans of Rome argues that rather than Christian and pagan (the latter being a set defined by all those who were not Christian or Jewish), many people in the 4th-century occupied a range of views in terms of religion and identity. Some individuals were exclusive and devout Christians, while others were convinced pagans. But many individuals were nominal and mercenary about their religious affiliation, moving with the winds. This is important because it implies that not all identified Christians would be unremittingly hostile toward pagan religion due to deep ideological commitments. The 4th-century man of letters, Ausonius, is perceived by many to have been Christian primarily due to its social advantage.

Conversely, many who were nominally pagans may have not had much opposition to becoming Christian in regards to their beliefs, but were held back by other considerations. For example, perhaps their role as pagan priests was socially advantageous in the locality to a far greater extent than the low probability of obtaining favor from the imperial center through conversion to the favored imperial religion. This example then suggests why the cessation of subsidies to the pagan cults in the 380s was so essential and critical: without public funds, the maintenance of the urban and elite segment of the old religions would fall back on the wealthy families. Instead of being a social boon obtained at no personal cost, the old religion would become a fiscal burden upon the traditional elites.

For many Westerners, the premodern shift of religious identity is framed by the Reformation. Religious lands were seized and secularized. Monks were defrocked. To a great extent, it was a rupture and a forcible one. This has analogs in other societies. China in the 9th-century saw the evisceration of the Buddhist establishment by Emperors who feared an over-mighty “First Estate.” Similarly, Oda Nobunaga in the 16th-century literally burned down the Buddhist monasteries of  Japan because so many had become laws unto themselves. Cameron’s argument in The Last Pagans of Rome is that paganism in the Roman Empire expired of natural causes. It was not killed. The assault on the Serapeum was the exception, not the rule. Though some Christians in the 4th-century began to make the case for coercion in religious belief, this seems to have been rare (in contrast, practices offensive to Christians, such as animal sacrifice, were clearly sharply curtailed).

To understand what happened in the 4th-century, and later, it is useful to look at analogies in other societies and at other times. Both Tibet and Japan saw strong reactions against the adoption of Buddhism by elements of the nobility. This is strikingly similar to what reputedly occurred in the Late Roman Empire. There was resistance to the move away from Roman Catholicism in England in the 16th-century, from principled intellectuals such as St. Thomas More, to aristocrats such as the Duke of Norfolk, and peasants in the northern English countryside. In the Indian subcontinent, a succession of Muslim monarchs and elites presented the native peoples with a religious vision sharply distinct from the customs and traditions of the local religious movements. Finally, in Germany in the 17th-century several lines of rulers changed from the religion of their subjects, but were unable to convert any of their subjects.

In Tibet and Japan, the anti-Buddhist faction initially succeeded, arresting or reversing the spread of the religion, but ultimately failed in changing the long-term religious arc of the society. In India, the Muslims only converted a minority of the population, and those conversions were regionally concentrated (Islam was much more successful in the far west and east of the subcontinent). In England, there was a gradual shift toward Protestantism in the 16th-century, though a minority always remained Roman Catholic. Finally, in Germany, the confessional identities were deeply rooted enough that elite preferences were irrelevant.

It is clear that deeply rooted mass confessional identity in a modern sense did not exist in the ancient world. Some Protestant thinkers go so far as to assert that Europeans were not truly Christian until after the Protestant Reformation, which forced individuals into personal religious faith. This seems to go too far in light of broad-based popular religious movements in the late medieval period, but the relatively muted reaction of the peasantry of the rapid shift to Protestantism triggered by elite conversion and identification strongly indicate that religious identity was weak and diffuse in the pre-modern period. In the ancient world, Christians introduced a sharp and clear religious identity, but to a great extent, this was a feature of urban areas and urban sub-elites (see Rodney Stark’s unfortunately polemical Cities of God). Similarly, in the early modern period, Protestantism was initially rooted in urban areas around cultural and socio-political elites, only slowly transforming the religious life of peasants with a new sort of piety.

So the issue then is not the whole society, it is the nature of the conversion of the political and cultural elite of the Roman world. The Neoplatonists of the 6th-century remained non-Christian because their metaphysical system could not be fully integrated into Christianity (though it clearly influenced Christianity). In contrast, it seems that the social and political elite became predominantly Christian much earlier. Why? As suggested above the disconnect between the state and traditional religion starved the old cults of fiscal support, and their withering removed any prestige accrued to elite lineages through patronage and priestly duties. Additionally, it took several generations after the initial patronage of Constantine for Christianity to produce the sort of highly cultured elite individuals which added a luster of cultivation to the religion which was attractive to the sensibilities of the aristocracy. It was a much easier task to convert nobles if those who preached Christianity to them were from their own class, sharing broad values and educations.

The spread of Christianity can be analogized to the spread of Islam in the Christian and Zoroastrian world in the 7th and 8th-centuries. Aristocratic Christians such as John of Damascus had a role within the Islamic polity so long as Greek language and forms were the dominant administrative culture of the Ummayyad state. The shift to Arabic changed the incentive structure. In The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown contends that the movement to Arabic by Christians was the dominant variable in the conversion of the Near East. In Iran, the emergence of Islam as a majority religion was coincident with the conversion of the local nobility and the defeat of the last independent Zoroastrian warlords.

We tend to carve reality into distinct and striking categories. The Last Pagans of Rome argue that the categories “pagan” and “Christian” divided into two classes what was really a spectrum. Similarly, the Christianization of antiquity was a gradual affair, and numerically the punctuated nature of events such as the Battle of Frigidus was probably far less striking than we wish them to be.

There are similarities to the situation of early Muslims in India to early imperial Christians in Late Antiquity. Islam in the subcontinent was very much a court religion. Though Hindu rulers persisted around the peripheries for nearly the whole time, the pinnacle of rule by and large took on a Turkic and Islamic cast in the subcontinent for many centuries. And yet Hinduism, or what we call Hinduism, but was truly a multiplicity of native Indian religious forms, persisted in the face of Islam. This is a contrast to Zoroastrianism and Christianity, which eventually lost their demographic preponderance in the face of Islam.

The situation of ancient paganism may have been even more hopeless. Rather than terming these “pagans,” an appellation that some Christians might apply to Hindus and Buddhists, I think a better way to think of the Greco-Roman traditional religions is that they were tribal religions. The Greco-Romans had a sophisticated set of metaphysics and ethics elucidated in their philosophies, but these remained sealed off from the traditional religion. Christianity integrated some elements of philosophy into the tribal religion of the Jews and then universalized it. In the short term, there were strong incentives for individuals and communities to resist Christianity, but its cultural innovativeness made its final victory likely inevitable, just as in Tibet and Japan Buddhism returned after the initial persecution.

India and China both resisted assimilation by foreign religions because they had more than simply tribal religions. In China Buddhism in the 9th-century became overbearing, which resulted in concerted persecution by the state (a practice which would reemergence several times in Chinese history). But there was also a strong anti-Buddhist elite critique from Neo-Confucians. Neo-Confucianism presented itself as a better alternative, rather than simply a reversion to a tribal religion. In China, the tribal religion persists in the form of local folk religion. But this is an entirely plebian affair. In India the religious traditions were fertile and robust, giving birth to the first world religion in the form of Buddhism, and pioneering the idea of the mobile religious community, the sangha. Some of the same could be said of the Hinduism of the period, which had integrated insights from Buddhism, and developed a complex fusion of philosophy and spirituality that became the Vedanta. The Hindu-Muslim tension and conflict which has been a feature of Indian history in various forms emerges from the fact that the assimilation of Hindus into Islam as converted Muslims is not inevitable due to the latter’s clearly superior sophistication over the former.

The Last Pagans of Rome describe a world in which inchoate and decentralized paganism was confronted with a new cultural innovation, a universally oriented exclusive religious community that synthesized popular devotionalism with elite rationality. The Christianization of the aristocracy was a matter of establishing the details of the accommodation, not whether that accommodation would happen.

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The limits of their knowledge are the limits of their world

Back in the 1990s I read David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series of future history science fiction.* Set in the year 2200, Wingrove depicts a world in which China is not only ascendant but in some ways the world is China.

For me, an implausible “twist” is that the political and cultural elite of this period falsified history. In this future history, the past 2,000 years has been erased from memory. China under the Han dynasty expanded westward under leaders such as Ban Chao and conquered the Roman Empire. Organized and institutional religion (Christianity and Buddhism), the rise of the West, and eventually the decline of China, never happened. Within the series itself, the rulers know the real history. Additionally, through a process of investigation and deeper analysis, bright individuals can also piece together the past. But the vast majority of humanity is totally unaware that only a few centuries ago the world was radically different.

At the time this was the most unbelievable aspect of Wingrove’s future history. How could the history of the world be so radically rewritten? Today my views are different. I have come to understand that most people do not engage in active critical-rationalism. Rather, they look to authorities from whom they can receive enlightenment, or be initiated into esoteric truths. For them, history is not a set of facts and processes about the past, but a narrative and framework which is a handmaid to an ideological project.

The examples are legion. The American Founders were white supremacists. The American Founders were devout Christians. The American Founders were radical progressives. The truth of the matter of these claims is less important than the symbolic value of the idea of who the American Founders were. The truth is secondary to the utility of the message.

This has always been, and will always be. What I am less sure of is whether today people are more ignorant of the past, or, if more people feel confident in expressing opinions about the past despite little solid knowledge about the past. Either way, this is concerning, because the truth is a critical antidote to totalitarian temptations. A smugly ignorant populace is manipulable populace.

* The original publisher gave up on the series after book seven, and Wingrove wrote a hasty and bizarre eight novel to complete the series. More recently has been rewriting the series to give in a more definitive conclusion.

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Was 2015 like 1965?

I’m old enough to remember an America that wasn’t too far from the 1960s. One of my childhood best friends had a mother who was a “hippy” in a classic sense, dressing like a “flower-child” deep into the 1980s. Basically, her sartorial sense was frozen in the second half of the 1960s, when she was at university. She was no longer with my friend’s father, who suffered from post-traumatic stress due to his experiences in Vietnam.* The late 1960s and early 1970s really had a huge impact on my friend’s life.

The people who went through the 1960s as young adults, the Baby Boomers, experienced something that transformed our culture. 1964 was closer to 1944 in many ways than it was to 1968. In Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson the author argues that one of the reasons that the sociopathic cult leader was able to flourish in Southern California during this period is that people had no expectations of a future anything like the past. People expected literally anything to happen. No matter how crazy.

Since the late 1960s, we really haven’t seen anything similar in terms of cultural tumult. The period between 2015 and 2020, for example, isn’t that shattering. On the other hand, I wonder if in some ways 2015 will be seen as a watershed. That was certainly the year many of us started to be worried and confused about what was going on in this country.

But the reason I’m posting this is to ask older readers who remember the 1960s: does this feel similar in any way? Clearly there is a contrast, in that the late 1960s was filled with hope, and the early 2020s not so much.

* Strange note, many years later when I lived in Berkeley, California, at the other end of the country, I ran into my childhood friend’s half-brother, who was a computer science graduate student at Cal. He had a very distinctive last name, when he told me where he had grown up I realized who he was.

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White people did not begin history

Click to enlarge

Update on the Tutsi genotype project. Many years ago I was given the genotype of an individual who had three Tutsi grandparents and one Hutu grandparent. You can see the result above in comparison to the single Hutu and the dozen or so Tutsi. This individual is shifted toward the Kenyan Bantu groups (while the Hutu individual is on the edge of that cluster). For those curious, the “Ethiopian” samples seem to be stratified between those who are Oromo and those who are Amhara. The latter is more West Eurasian shifted than the former (the “Ethiopian Jews”, the Beta Israel, tend to cluster with the various Habesha groups).

In relation to this project, some of the reaction from the peanut gallery has been what you’d expect. Ultimately, the reason I’m doing this is that Tutsi who are making recourse to personal genomic services are coming back with results that don’t make sense in light of the narrative that the government of Rwanda, and to some extent, the media and the academy, put out there. That is, that the Tutsi-Hutu categories can be chalked up to the machinations of the Belgians. White people. A social construction having to do with wealth and modes of production.

To be frank, I’m more interested in what the Tutsi correspondents have to say than the online white saviors (one of the Tutsi individuals had second thoughts about involvement, and their genotype is no longer in the project).

The big questions that loom over this sort of analysis are simple. Did the Belgians create these ethnocultural categories? Did the Belgian act set in motion the events of the Rwandan genocide?

It is quite common in various parts of the educated set to assert that nationalism and ethnicity and identity have shallow roots. The academic view can often be distilled down to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (apparently this is the most assigned book among undergraduates, explaining its influence). Though Anderson’s thesis is not quite as general as people make it out to be, I do think it leads one toward the conclusion that national, ethnic, and communal identity is shallow, superficial, recent, and, of European causal origin.

If one takes these as a given then the essential, necessary, and causal role of the Belgians in fomenting conflict in Ruanda-Urundi is perhaps warranted. As it happens, I reject the generality of Anderson’s thesis. Rather, I believe that Azar Gat’s argument in Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism is much more persuasive. Gat is not saying that the French nation originated with Vercingetorix. But, he does argue that the elements of national identity which crystallized and converged with the French Revolution were deep and longstanding.

The same is clearly true of many non-European ethnicities and nationalities. They existed long before the arrival of European colonialism and political ideology.

Just as with Anderson’s Imagined Communities, I believe that Edward Said’s Orientalism has elements of truth, but that its insights are over-generalized. For example, it seems clear that the British did have some ideological interests in mind when interpreting the history and ethnography of the Indian subcontinent. But they did not invent the categories of Muslim and Hindu in any substantive fashion. Nor did they invent the ethnolinguistic diversity of the subcontinent which resulted in imperfect integration of the culture of the far southern states, which speak Dravidian languages, with the Hindi “cow-belt.” This diversity preexisted the arrival of the British.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think that the Great Divergence occurred. I do think Europe for various reasons developed on a separate and distinct path. But, I do not think European history and European experience is so sui generis that the cultures and societies of the world today must be, and can only be, understood in light of their post-colonial experiences with Europe. The colonial experiences were impactful, but history did not begin with the colonial period. More crassly, non-white peoples existed with form and texture before they were observed and shaped by white people. White peoples’ agency is not the predominant element in non-European social identity.

In relation to the causal agency of white Europeans in relation to non-white peoples, imagine if the general consensus was that the massive death tolls of the Thirty Years War were due to the malevolent choice of certain Protestant princes in the prior century to align and foster religious reform. The reality is most people would argue that the causes of the war were complex, multifaceted, and somewhat contingent. The same sort of framework applies to situations outside of Europe. Instead, what we get are reductive explanations of the form “because white colonialists!”

So what’s going to explain the pattern of reducing non-European societies to bit-parts in a drama of European history? The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer contends that theories give you “information for free.” Postcolonial theory then is a cheap and easy way to understand causal processes in history without having to read and know any history. There are no details necessary. Just apply the theory and produce results!

But why now? For a few years now the grad student Zach Goldberg has been writing about the “Great Awokening”. This refers to the radicalization of many white progressives on racial issues since ~2015. Zach’s plot above shows that The New York Times mentions of “racism” shot up over the last few years. The same with a host of other variables.

Before 2015 I might have agreed I was “socially liberal.” Today I wouldn’t say that, because I disagree with the utility of assertions of the form “all white people are racist” and “all men are sexist.” I have no idea honestly what I’m agreeing to if I say I align with social liberals since the revolution in views is moving so fast.

But there is another wrinkle which I think is important to acknowledge about the Great Awokening: it hasn’t been associated with a massive change in behavior by white liberals from what I can see. Arguably, most of my friends are white liberals, so I’ve been able to observe them over many years. Their rhetoric is different (or more precisely more frequent). But their behavior is very similar.

I will give two anecdotes to illustrate what I’m talking about. After 2016 many of my white academic friends began to post incessantly on Facebook about the recent upsurge in racism, and how frightening it was to be a racial minority. Curiously, I noticed that many of the Facebook threads were populated exclusively by white people talking about how horrible racism was. The American population is 63% non-Hispanic white. And a much lower fraction among younger cohorts. This was not a random sampling of the population.

At one point I actually decided to speak to an experience of racism on a thread, and how much it has declined since the 1980s and 1990s. So many of the people talking seem to be speaking of abstractions since they were non-Hispanic white and seemed to be friends overwhelmingly with only non-Hispanic whites. They were totally unaware that the extent of casual racism had declined radically since the 1980s because they themselves knew very few nonwhites intimately from what I can tell.

The second anecdote occurred in a city that happens to be a bit under 50% non-Hispanic white. I was having a casual dinner at a friend’s house. This friend is a sincere white progressive and academic. In the middle of eating their elementary-age child interrupted and asked bashfully why my “skin is brown like that.” Basically, this child had not experienced nonwhite people in preschool or school, and from what I could tell I was one of the few nonwhite friends of this academic.  The reason that this is notable is that it reflects the high level of racial segregation in their lives that white progressives in racially diverse urban areas often choose. This is not surprising in light of the fact that the most diverse counties are the most assortative in mating (this is presumably due to larger numbers of ethnic minorities who can find mates).

These facts are open secrets. Just look at where more progressive-than-thou white liberals actually live (around people just like them), and who populates their Facebook friends list (again, people just like them). Since this is so universal there isn’t a great shame in this sort of behavior. As they say, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

But the abstract nature of white progressive concern with racism and inequality causes serious problems in their understanding of the world around them. They begin to see everything around them as the playing out in history of “white supremacy,” as if it’s the ground of all being. It is a metaphysical abstraction. This problem is more serious for millennials and zoomers, who have been educated more recently.

The new regnant ideology has changed the way I write historically inflected pieces. When I wrote The Blood On Brown Hands Is A Legacy Of All Of History, it came in at 5,000 words. I consciously loaded it with erudition to make it clear to white progressive readers that I actually have forgotten more history than they’ve ever known. On some level, I will accept that most white progressives are sincerely anti-racist, but my experience as a non-white person who disagrees with their “sacred values” on race is that unless I come to the table “with receipts” (as they’d say) they will dismiss me as an ignorant rube who has been brainwashed (non-whites tend to lack independent agency in their ontology unless they express the views that they believe non-whites should express; I won’t question their motives, but I’ve experienced this way too often to not anticipate it).

They know because they are white. They are the agents of all history. They will redeem the evil which they have wrought by their sacrifice of copious internet virtue signaling.

Addendum: I will make one note: the quality of conversations about racial discrimination and racism is quite different when one is talking to a woke white person who is married to a nonwhite person. Probably the cause here is that racism and racial diversity are concrete, rather than abstract. There’s something to actually grapple onto that’s beyond someone’s imagination and beliefs. It’s not just a theoretical debate.

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Are the Jacobins and Thermidor just in the past?

Being raised as an American in the last quarter of the 20th-century gives one an interesting perspective. The period between 1975 and 1995 was characterized by worries about decline. From the tail end of the post-1965 crime wave to the psychological trauma of the oil shocks, the rise of Japan, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, it wasn’t an era without angst clearly. Nevertheless, by the early 1990s, we had turned a corner, even if we were not aware of it. The crime wave was abating, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Japan was entering its “Lost Decade.”

By the year 2000, the United States of America was the “hyperpower”. The period between 1995 and 2015 was defined by our unipolar moment. In the late 1990s, it looked as if wage growth had finally come back to the broad middle and lower classes, and the American model, and more broadly the neoliberal “Washington Consensus”, was here to stay.

Obviously things have changed. Though 9/11 is arguably one of the most important cultural events in the early 21st-century for Americans, with hindsight I think this exogenous shock really only had an impact on the margins in relation to the long term trends, which are driven by endogenous forces. The 2008 financial crisis didn’t come out of a vacuum but reflected serious and deep structural problems in the way capitalism was organized. And, more or less, the vast majority of economists didn’t predict it. It left many of us highly skeptical of “expertise”, as well as the ability of the market to self-correct and not be captured by corrupt parties gorging on rents.

The 2010s have been a mixed affair. Internally there has been recovery from economic distress, and the news for the middle and lower classes is not all bad (full employment is good for those with few skills!). That being said, high levels of inequality and the manifest reality that globalization benefits the very top of the income and wealth distribution seems hard to deny. The second great modern era of globalization is now facing critiques from both the Left and the Right.

Externally, the hyperpower/unipolar moment is fading, if not totally faded. Though on a per unit basis China is less productive and powerful than the USA, in the year 2000 it was 4% of the world’s GDP, and in 2017 it was 15%. In the year 2000, the USA was 31% of the world’s GDP, and in 2017 it is 25%. The 1990s expectation, shared by many Americans, that China would become more liberal and democratic as it became wealthier has not been validated by the facts on the ground.

Internally there are high levels of polarization and low levels of trust in institutions and leaders in the USA. Various positional races (e.g., university educations for everyone!) combined with a relatively stagnant pie (e.g., more legal degrees than lawyers) leave even the aspiring upper-middle class suspicious of their prospects. The overhang of personal and public debt and the possibility of government debt crises and problems funding entitlements loom over the horizon for the working-age population.

We are not doing badly as a nation, exactly. But rising morbidity in broad swaths of the population reflects uncertainty at the robustness of the prosperity we do have (as well as economic marginalization of those with fewer skills).

Those of us who came to maturity in the late 20th-century was proudly told about the reality that we were the Eternal Republic. Our Constitution was the oldest still in use. Our republic may not have been perfect, but it was as good as it gets. The idea that the Eternal Republic might have an ending to its story seemed absurd barring nuclear conflict, at least in our time, and across the generations alive at the end of the 20th-century.

More broadly, as Steven Pinker has highlighted, there has been broad growth in prosperity and wealth across the world. The American story is not the only story. But if someone told you that other citizens were doing well when you struggled, would that make you happier? Americans are not struggling, but we get a sense it is no longer “morning in America.” Rather, it is closer to dusk.

Foundational to the idea of the Eternal Republic is that our society, our culture, our nation-state, is so beholden to the values of liberty and democratic governance that it could be no other way. First, let us admit that this perfect republic has had its drawbacks and black-marks, most especially in the domain of racial slavery and racial segregation. With that being said, a broad commitment to the idea of liberty, autonomy, and the value of each citizen, has allowed for the circle of fellow-feeling to expand.

But the question is this: are the commitments to liberty and democratic governance due to individual principle, or institutional scaffold and contingency? If the citizens themselves do not have a deep commitment to the principles, the abstractions which undergird governance, then if the institutions begin to lack legitimacy, and the contingencies of history shift just a bit, one can foresee a scenario where liberal democratic citizens sing a very different tune very soon.

My view of human nature and social cognition is that people will believe and do what their ingroup leaders demand of them. For various reasons, American elites have generally taken an extremely liberal attitude toward freedom of expression. This, despite public surveys which suggest broad popular skepticism of offensive speech. If the consensus among American elites for freedom of speech erodes at all, I believe that the extreme policy position would quickly retreat in the face of populist disquiet and factional elite manipulation of government organs to silence their rivals.

The confidence in the Eternal Republic was rooted in the reality of American economic ascendency in the 20th-century. The reality that wage gains and prosperity were both broad-based. The expansion of rights and dignity to racial minorities was consonant with the broader elements of the foundational principles. America had always been the most powerful. America had always been the richest. And of course, America would always be the freest and the most democratic.

Over the last five years, I have come to be more and more skeptical of the robustness of the Eternal Republic. My rationale is straightforward. The cultural preconditions of the Eternal Republic were rooted in deep foundations. Shocks to the vigor of the Eternal Republic failed to topple it because of the accumulated capital of generations. But capital can eventually deplete with both shocks and gradual erosion. Once the system is no longer robust, novel contingencies can transform cultural expectations rather quickly. Cultural change is nonlinear because most people conform, and quickly bend before the cold new winds. Americans have a conceit that we love liberty. And I think we’re sincere in this. But the philo-Semitic Germans of the 1920s became something quite different in the 1930s, and atheistic Leftist Soviet men and women of the 1970s and 1980s have shape-shifted at least twice since the 1990s.

Is America and are Americans special because of something deep with us, or were we lucky? To be frank I fear the latter may hit close to the mark. If that is so, then eventually luck runs out…

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The 2020s, the decade of taking everyone seriously but not literally

Adam Serwer in The Atlantic argues that The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts. This is in response to some controversy because several eminent historians on the Left (there are hardly any historians on the Right in any case) published a pretty strong critique of the 1619 Project. If you don’t know the names, you should (at least if you ever have thoughts about American history).*

But even before I saw Serwer’s piece I assumed he would write something in The Atlantic that basically said what he said. This is a game of tribes, and there is no way Adam Serwer of The Atlantic was going to write anything that was negative about Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times Magazine. In the game of middle-school lunch-table cliques, the fashionable glossy intellectual magazine set is always going to close-ranks against academic nerds. It’s a matter of professional honor and interest.

I think a shorter version of Serwer’s argument is that the 1619 Project isn’t a work of academic history, but a form of writing that exists to engage and reorient the questions, perspectives, and direction, of the broader public discussion. On its own, this is not an unreasonable position. But I doubt any fair-minded individual would agree that Serwer would accept this argument for positions and viewpoints he disagreed with on the merits. That is, “let’s look past the facts in this case, and focus on the bigger picture….”

If tasked to do such thing I could write a Serwer-like piece about David Barton’s stupid books, such as Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth. But most people writing for The Atlantic or The New York Times Magazine would laugh because punctilious attention to facts would matter. After all, facts and reality are important when the arguments are those you disagree with!

Sean Wilentz, one of the historians criticizing the 1619 Project, has been written recently about changing his mind about issues relating to the early American republic (slavery and the Founding). Whether you agree with Wilentz or not, this sort of attitude betrays a positivistic pretention. That the evidence is ultimately the measure of all things in his priority of things.

This traditional attitude is on the wane. The reality is more and more facts exist only in the service of polemic. Assertions of academic pedigree or standing exist only to buttress arguments from the authority for one’s own side, never to forward an understanding of the underlying issues at all. This is clear because it is so common today for polemicists to assert a lie, and call that lie good because the lie is in the service of good is good.

If you begin with the assumption of bad faith, you are probably on solid ground.

* Though I am not on Sean Wilentz’s “side” in The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, everyone should read the book!

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Civilization was inevitable, not contingent

Nice review in Nature, When did societies become modern? ‘Big history’ dashes popular idea of Axial Age Humanity’s supposed singular transition to modernity in the first millennium BC was much messier than previously thought, finds sweeping study of historical data. I blogged an earlier paper with a smaller version of the dataset that the book, Seshat History of the Axial Age, is based on.

My inclination is to believe that the authors are on the right trail. It’s rather like the thesis that the Industrial Revolution wasn’t a revolution, but a gradual affair which ramped up in the 19th-century (the “long fuse”). The human mind likes to transform continuities into singular events. We create categories and classes. For various plausible reasons the “Axial Age” happening around the centuries focused on 500 BC does make sense. But like an English paper, once you have the hypothesis, all experiments prove your preconception.

One of William H. McNeill’s last books was The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. McNeill argued that over time interactions across the Eurasian oikoumene threaded together the whole zone so that civilization became more robust to external shocks. The results from the Seshat database seem to confirm that insight. Instead of independent illuminations, the emergence of Axial characteristics can be thought of as a creative and integrated synthesis.

It also seems clear now that common trends and patterns were occurring across human societies during the Holocene, and much of what we see around us is not contingent and arbitrary. A technological literate world civilization with religions such as the Roman numina and Japanese kammi seems unlikely (Japanese Shinto only exists as a substrate coexistent with Buddhism). Animism of this sort of is primal and universal. As per Paul Bloom and others, it is likely that it’s a basic and atomic unit of religious expression. But as societies become more complex, dense, and literate, new forms of religiosity emerge with common themes.* It’s inevitable.

What Seshat and other projects are doing with formalism and data to me is analogous to what happened with evolutionary biology in the early 20th-century. History has many great ideas. But now they’re being tested systematically.

* Local gods give way to universal gods and principles. Ethics and metaphysics become deeply intertwined with religion and an explicit relationship between cult and state emerge.

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City air makes you less fecund


A follow-up from an earlier post. Looking at a transect of Roman DNA I made the assertion that modern Roman Italian samples reflect the rural hinterlands of Lazio, which repopulated the city after its massive population loss of the 7th-centuries. This separate post is probably warranted because taking into account comments, I have reread and rethought, and I think I am going to update a few views.

But first, something I won’t update: it seems clear that Imperial Romans were genetically distinct and quite cosmopolitan in comparison to their Republican predecessors, but neither did they leave a clear imprint down to the future. The histories are quite clear that Imperial Rome was a reflection of the whole Roman Empire, with eminent intellectuals and aristocrats congregating from all corners of the world-state. That being said, the results from the paper confirmed the weight of the eastern provinces in their influence and demographic heft.

And yet for all that heft, the scions of the eastern provinces who settled down in and around the Eternal City left few descendants judging from modern Italian DNA. Why? Because cities were massive demographic sinks in the best of times, with endemic disease, combined with periodic shocks like plagues and invasions.

With the decline of the Pax Romana, and the shattering of the Mediterranean system with the rise of Islam, the demographics of the Roman people no longer reflected the world of antiquity. Rather, Romans became Italians once more, more or less. But, there were subtle differences from the Republican Romans. Modern Romans seem to be placed as you would expect between North and South Italians. The Italian peninsula as a whole seems to have received more “Pan-European” genetic influence since the Iron Age. The cumulative impact of Goths, Lombards, as well as the slave trade and the remnant of Imperial cosmopolitanism, has likely made a difference.

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The Chinese customer is always right

Unless you have been sleeping under a rock you are aware that there is a controversy around China and the NBA due to different standards of political speech in the USA and China. Obviously the major issue that looms over the debate is the reality that at some point in the 2020s China will become the world’s largest economy, and one of the major consumer engines of the world. From a corporate perspective, this hangs over all the discussion and consideration. The Chinese market is like El Dorado.

But I would like to draw attention to something Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and co-founder of Alibaba, said on Facebook:

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.

A bit of historical perspective is important. In the mid-19thcentury, China fought two Opium Wars with the British, aided by the French, who forced through illegal trade of opium to China. A very weak Qing Dynasty government lost the wars and the result was the ceding of Hong Kong to the British as a colony.

The substance of the dispute here on their face-value isn’t too important. Rather, from a commercial perspective the opinions of Chinese matter because there are 1.4 billion of them. Additionally, from a commercial perspective, the “objective truth” doesn’t matter. The “customer” is always right. Whether the Chinese have legitimate grounds for their beliefs is less important than what their beliefs are, because there are so many of them. The substance of beliefs may dictate consumption. Whether those beliefs are true or not is secondary (ask the supplements industry in the USA).

But this is not a dynamic limited to this context. Do you remember the Islamic mosque and cultural center that was slated to be built near the World Trade Center? The project was abandoned after various groups, including some 9/11 victim families, felt that it was offensive. Though I didn’t believe that the center had anything to do with 9/11 as such, I do recall being vaguely sympathetic to their feelings. In hindsight, this was clearly the wrong call by me in light of broader trends in our culture.

Since that time the reign of feelings over facts has proceeded apace. In American society, the facts at hand matter less and less, than who the people are who have their own reaction, perception, and subjective experience, of the facts. The fact that 9/11 families were uncomfortable determined the ultimate course of construction. The fact that college students are uncomfortable that someone is going to speak who wrote something that offends them 20 years ago is key factor that determines if the invitation will be rescinded. The overall objective fact of something is incidental in comparison to the visceral reaction.

One of the things that I have witnessed which illustrates this trend is the way Richard Dawkins is viewed by young “enlightened” people. Dawkins has always been a bit of a brusque and direct individual in regards to what he believes are the facts irrespective of the target. In 2006 he was commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 to take lead on a documentary titled The Root of all Evil. When The God Delusion was published Dawkins’ intellectual celebrity rose to new heights.

Not so in 2019. The reason? Richard Dawkins is 78. In fundamental ways, he has not changed. He is an old man. And, he has a naive and to my mind an overly simplistic view of the importance of truth above all things. But those are his sincere beliefs. As such, he expresses his views without much equivocation and in a simple and open manner which is now often highly offensive to many people who a decade ago admired him. The primary reason is that Richard Dawkins is an upper-middle-class white male, and the targets of his criticism, for example, a hijabi in Bradford, England, are not. How sympathetic the targets are matters a great deal. The logic or empirical basis less so.

In the late 2000s I recall a friend of mine at the time, an academic philosopher, explaining to me that in the context of the offense, the intent of the offender is irrelevant when compared to the reaction of the offended. This seemed like a bizarre view to me at the time, but in this decade this view has become more and more mainstream.

When these ideas were first being articulated several decades ago there was still a strong hope and expectation that economic liberalization in China would lead to political liberalization. I shared that hope. It seems that in many ways we were wrong. Rather than the internet as a means for free expression, it has become an essential tool of commerce and social control and manipulation. My vague impression is that most  Chinese are either politically apathetic or somewhat nationalist and anticipating warmly the geopolitical power of their nation-state on the world stage.

In contrast, in the United States I feel we are in a parochial cultural moment. On the Right, the slogan “Make America Great Again” is reflective of nostalgia for the 20th-century. On the Left, particular concerns with the failings of the American project loom larger than the larger dynamics in human history (as opposed to the mass decline of poverty in places like China over the last generation). Around the year 2000 many Americans had a view of the 21st-century where prosperity would transform the rest of the world into cultural clones of America. This would have resulted in universal particularisms and sensitivities. That is, the ascendency of post-modern thinking, and the rise of subjectivism would have been constrained by a common cultural framework directed and shaped by American and European elites. What is “problematic” here would be “problematic” there.

That has not happened. Rather, Alistar McGrath’s general prediction in The Twilight of Atheism has come to be. I say general because atheism has not collapsed in a specific sense (on the contrary, as irreligion has increased greatly in the United States). But particular cultural understandings of what is right and proper have come to the foreground with more muscular robustness as the Enlightenment ideal of a universal shared reality fades.

One of the more nihilistic aspects of the intellectual revolution triggered by the influence of Michel Foucault is to reduce perception and comprehension as simply outcomes of power relations. I would argue that what we see today in the corporate response to the rise of Chinese economic power is the reshaping of truth and sensitivities toward broadly Chinese outlines due to Chinese power. What one sees here is the convergence between capitalist kowtowing toward power, and the reality that more and more people acknowledge and accept that power determines our understanding of reality.

The world is not out there, the world is created by us.

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