The near-universal existence of religion across cultures is surprising. Many people have speculated on what makes tribes around the world so fixated on believing in gods and propitiating them and so on. More recently people like Dawkins and Dennett have added their own contributions about parasitic memes and hyperactive agent-detection.
But I think a lot of these explanations are too focused on a modern idea of religion. I find ancient religion much more enlightening. I’m no historian, but from the little I know ancient religion seems to bleed seamlessly into every other aspect of the ancient way of life. For example, the Roman religion was a combination of mythology, larger-than-life history, patriotism, holidays, customs, superstitions, rules about the government, beliefs about virtue, and attempts to read the future off the livers of pigs. And aside from the pig livers, this seems entirely typical.
American culture (“American civil religion“) has a lot of these features too. It has mythology and larger-than-life history: George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, the wise and glorious Founding Fathers, Honest Abe single-handedly freeing the slaves with his trusty hatchet. It has patriotic symbols and art: the flag, the anthem, Uncle Sam. It has holidays: the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s birthday. It has customs: eat turkey on Thanksgiving, have a barbecue on Memorial Day, watch the Super Bowl. It has superstitions – the number 13, black cats – and ritual taboos – even “obvious” things like don’t go outside naked needs to be thought of as taboo considering some cultures do so without thinking. It has rules about the government – both the official laws you’ll find in the federal law code, but also deep-seated beliefs about the goodness of democracy or about how all men are created equal, and even customs that affect day-to-day governance like the President giving a State of the Union in January before both houses of Congress. There are beliefs about virtue: everyone should be free, we should try to be independent, we should work hard and pursue the American Dream.
Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.
But if America was a thousand years old and had no science, no religion, and no writing, we would have crazy mythologies up the wazoo. George Washington would take on the stature of an Agamemnon; Benjamin Franklin would take on the status of a Daedalus. Instead of centaurs and satyrs and lamia we would have jackalopes and chupacabras and grey aliens. All those people who say with a nod and a wink that Paul Bunyan dug the Great Lakes as a drinking trough for his giant ox would say the same thing nodless and winkless. Superman would take on the stature of a Zeus, dwelling beside Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bigfoot atop Mt. Whitney, helping the virtuous and punishing the wicked. Some American Hesiod would put succumb to the systematizing impulse, put it all together and explain how George Washington was the son of Superman and ordered Paul Bunyan to dig Chesapeake Bay to entrap the British fleet, and nobody would be able to say they were wrong. I mean, we already have Superman vs. Batman as canon, why not go the extra distance?
Scott Alexander, “A Theory About Religion”, Slate Star Codex, 2016-04-07.
April 18, 2016
April 16, 2016
H/T to American Digest for the link.
April 14, 2016
April 12, 2016
… one of those dim, dumpy “world-famous in Canada” sorts who are especially unimpressive whenever they happen to be, as in her case, “Kay-BECK-erz.” This human chafing dish for received liberal wisdom has received so many “honors” and “awards” that one friend I’d brought along said he half expected that, mid-debate, someone would walk out on stage and hand her a new one.
Kathy Shaidle, “An Evening With the ‘Rape Me First, Kill Me Last’ Crowd”, Taki’s Magazine, 2016-04-05.
April 8, 2016
Further north into the Midwest, you run into the Polacks. This is technically a derogatory term for people of Polish descent, though I’ve also heard it applied to people whose Eastern European ancestors came from less well-known countries. In Europe, particularly France and Russia, Polish people are stereotyped as thieves or under-the-table laborers. In the US, you’re more likely to run into the stereotype of “Polish people are unintelligent,” although both continents tend to associate being Polish with being a plumber. Polacks are also the target of a uniquely American type of joke, the Polack joke, which has developed regional variations. In Texas, they’re Aggie jokes instead.
Further north still, in Minnesota and the Dakotas, you get the Scandahoovians. Tall, blonde, chubby, kind of dim and easy to put one over on, but friendly: there’s your stereotypical Scandahoovian. Jokes about Scandahoovians are kinder, on average, than jokes about Polacks; the Scandahoovian is still the butt of the joke, but about half the time, he outwits the Yankee. Scandahoovians will also never stop feeding you, but instead of sausages, it’s casserole and they call it “hot dish.” They’re quiet folks; I’m told this is a survival trait, acquired as a result of having to spend the entirety of winter either at home with your family or ice fishing. (Get into a spat with someone, and you’ll be doing a lot more ice fishing. So they keep things to themselves.)
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Italians. Italians compete with Czech-Germans for keeping you fat and happy, but they’re much more talkative. They also compete with the Scots-Irish for fighting you. I don’t know much about Italian white trash culture; I married into Pennsylvania Scots-Irish, and that branch of family sure loved Italian food and was happy to work with their neighboring Italians, but tended to keep to their own culturally. “Jersey Shore” is where most folks get their stereotypes of Italians these days, and I’m sure it only shows the shittiest, most laughable parts of Italian white trash culture. I’ve made a few Italian white trash friends, and they’re some of the most loyal people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
Meredith L. Patterson, “A Field Guide to White Trash”, Status 451, 2016-03-18.
April 6, 2016
April 4, 2016
… a survey by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Psychological Sciences, “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?” found that consumers of “Green” and “Planet Saving Products” are more inclined to cheat, lie and steal.
Risibly, perhaps because Mazar and Zhong are from the planet Mars, and not aware of the last fifty years of human history, the researchers speculate that people who wear what they call the “halo of green consumerism” are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. “Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours.”
Pardon me, but I must pause to wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes.
Those of us from the planet Earth, who remember being lectured-at and talked down to for the last fifty years by these sneering self-anointed Green busy-bodies and Enviro-Marxists know very well why Greens tend to lie and cheat: it is because they are unbathed and draggle-haired hippies.
Anyone who did not note the moral degradation involved in the Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Revolt overlooked the express and often repeated point and purpose of that revolt: it was to degrade moral standards, first in the sexual realm, then in common courtesy, chivalry, common decency, then in independence of character, then in toleration of dissent. Somewhere along the way personal hygiene fell by the wayside, along with respect for one’s elders and respect for one’s word.
The purpose of the Green Movement, which sprang from the unbathed Youth Movement, is not now and has never been to save the planet and preserve the beauty of nature. That is what Boy Scouts and Rod and Gun clubs and other arch-enemies of the Greens mean to do. The Greens want to trash industry and to feel good about themselves.
It is self esteem therapy, not anything related to reality.
John C. Wright, “Supermanity and Dehumanity (Complete)”, John C. Wright’s Journal, 2014-12-13.
April 3, 2016
I have said on a few occasions that, in my opinion, based on my reading of history, wars are, as often as not, caused by fear. Even Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression is, I think, a result of his fear of what is happening to Russia: a steady decline back into political and strategic irrelevance. It is not at all unreasonable to suppose that fear of the societal changes that very large scale migrations will bring cannot and will not provoke people into electing governments that will, out of fear of the unknown, attack their neighbours in a misguided effort to sauve qui peut in their own societies.
I think Sir Max [Hastings]’s “think-tank friend in Washington,” was (still is) wrong when he “observed last week: ‘Democracy only works where there is a broad consensus about the distribution of wealth and power.’ And it is because this consensus faces unprecedented stresses in consequence of migration in Europe, that he believes some factions may resort to violence, even outright war.” The “broad consensus” is not about wealth or power, it is about respecting the rules, living with and within the “institutions” which make democracy work. Those institutions are strong in e.g. Britain, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries; they are weaker in e.g. France, which, for example, tossed out a democratic government and constitution in 1958 when the Algerian war went sour.; they are weaker still, in my opinion, in the entire “Southern tier” of Europe (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and the Balkans and in the Eastern European states that only recently tossed off the yoke of Russian/communist rule. If trouble is going to start it will happen, I think, in those weaker states. A European war is likely to start when one of the countries with weaker institutions decides, our of fear, that it must break the rules that hold Europe together.
Ted Campbell, “Everyman’s Strategic Survey: Europe(2)”, Ted Campbell’s Point of View, 2016-03-22.
March 20, 2016
March 7, 2016
I was thinking about this the last few days and I realized we – we modern people – have a very odd relationship with death.
Look, I’m in no way complaining about this, okay? I want you to understand that upfront. For my final exam in American culture, back in Portugal, I had to read this very stupid book who deduced all sorts of crazy stuff about Americans from the fact our dead are usually embalmed. Frankly, I think the author should have his head examined. (He also went on about our putting people in old age homes, forgetting that our elderly live MUCH longer than normal, which means at the end they need a lot more specialized care. He also seemed not to get the sheer immensity of our territory which means family can be flung all over the continent. Organizing a rostrum to visit grandma and make sure she takes her meds is a tad-bit more difficult than in a village or even a moderately sized town.)
However it makes us weird about death. And it distorts our view of everything.
Accidents most of all. What, you think it’s a coincidence that the more remote the possibility of death, the more we pile on safety mechanisms in cars? The more we make our kids wear helmets and eye protection for perfectly harmless activities? (I think the end run of this is that we pad all the trees, like the royal family of Spain when their kids had hemophilia.)
And it goes further. Any death has become unthinkable. We react with shock to any death that doesn’t take place after protracted illness. We start cowering back from eating meat because “the poor animals” and we shy back from any war and try to have it humane and with ROEs that make it impossible to do what war should do: inflict terror and pain on the enemy until they surrender. (I think this goes hand in hand with no longer knowing how to END a war. We don’t say “We’re going to end it by winning.” Or “It ends when the other guy is rubble.” No, we say “We need an exit strategy.”)
If you think of death as the dark tints of life, we’ve become washed out, and in many ways incomprehensible to cultures in which death is still very common.
I know, I know, culture this, culture that – but in the end I wonder how much of our decay and our seeming wish for suicide, from having too few kids to not being ruthless enough to those who hurt us, comes from the fact that death has come to seem unnatural and strange.
Again, I’m not complaining. I’m no more fond of death than anyone else, and no more resolute in the face of it. I know I might be called upon to die for what I believe in, and that’s fine – it’s much, much harder to accept dying because someone’s clutch slipped, or because I caught some weird virus no one could figure out. And I can’t imagine dying even at 100 without feeling that I’m leaving a lot of stuff undone. Still, I can come to terms with my own death – the death of those I love is something else. I’ve already told Dan he must die after me or I’ll never talk to him again. The thought of losing the kids is unimaginably horrific. Heck, I’m all broken up about the idea of losing a cat within the year, and I’ve lost cats before.
BUT while I wouldn’t want a return to things quasi-ante, and while the solutions I could pose – as a science fiction author – range from the repugnant to the horrible and are all “I don’t want this” (Though some might make interesting stories.) I do wonder what part of our decay, or the decay of our willingness to fight and win, is because death is alien and a surprise to us.
We have become like the elves who spawn rarely and live unnaturally long “blessed” lives. Maybe there is some ancestral memory there. Maybe there is a cycle where you become too comfortable, too little used to death, and then the ruthless cultures come in and destroy you, because they walk with death everyday.
Sarah Hoyt, “Death in the Surprise Position – A Blast From The past from Dec. 2012”, According to Hoyt, 2015-11-06.
February 29, 2016
There’s a story about a TV guide that summarized The Wizard of Oz as “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
It’s funny because it mistakes a tale of wonder and adventure for a crime spree. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is the opposite; a crime spree that gets mistaken for a tale of wonder and adventure.
On The Road is a terrible book about terrible people. Kerouac and his terrible friends drive across the US about seven zillion times for no particular reason, getting in car accidents and stealing stuff and screwing women whom they promise to marry and then don’t.
But it’s okay, because they are visionaries. Their vision is to use the words “holy”, “ecstatic”, and “angelic” at least three times to describe every object between Toledo and Bakersfield. They don’t pass a barn, they pass a holy vision of a barn, a barn such as there must have been when the world was young, a barn whose angelic red and beatific white send them into mad ecstasies. They don’t almost hit a cow, they almost hit a holy primordial cow, the cow of all the earth, the cow whose dreamlike ecstatic mooing brings them to the brink of a rebirth such as no one has ever known.
Even more interesting than their ease of transportation to me was their ease at getting jobs. This is so obvious to them it is left unspoken. Whenever their money runs out, be they in Truckee or Texas or Toledo, they just hop over to the nearest farm or factory or whatever, say “Job, please!” and are earning back their depleted savings in no time. This is really the crux of their way of life. They don’t feel bound to any one place, because traveling isn’t really a risk. Be it for a week or six months, there’s always going to be work waiting for them when they need it. It doesn’t matter that Dean has no college degree, or a criminal history a mile long, or is only going to be in town a couple of weeks. This just seems to be a background assumption. It is most obvious when it is violated; the times it takes an entire week to find a job, and they are complaining bitterly. Or the time the only jobs available are backbreaking farm labor, and so Jack moves on (of course abandoning the girl he is with at the time) to greener pastures that he knows are waiting.
Even more interesting than their ease of employment is their ease with women. This is unintentionally a feminist novel, in that once you read it (at least from a modern perspective) you end up realizing the vast cultural shift that had to (has to?) take place in order to protect women from people like the authors. Poor Galatea Dunkel seems to have been more of the rule than the exception – go find a pretty girl, tell her you love her, deflower her, then steal a car and drive off to do it to someone else, leaving her unmarriageable and maybe with a kid to support. Then the next time you’re back in town, look her up, give her a fake apology in order to calm her down enough for her to be willing to have sex with you again, and repeat the entire process.
Scott Alexander, “Book Review: On The Road“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-12-02.
February 26, 2016
Philadelphians laugh at the pathetic imitations of “Philly steaks” offered elsewhere for the same reason Texans laugh at barbecue made north of the Mason-Dixon line. And both groups are right to laugh. It just ain’t the same.
Every time I order up a mess of barbecue at a place like Rudy’s or County Line or Dick’s Last Resort I think to myself “Someday, one of these barbecue outfits has got to start offering decent bread. Their sales would go through the roof.” I’ve been waiting for the market to correct this problem for more than twenty years now — and it hasn’t happened. And thereby hangs a mystery.
The mystery is the curious persistence of regional food differences in a country with cheap transport and the best communications network in the world. There are places in the U.S. where you can reliably get really good bread — mostly the coastal metroplexes. There are places you can get real barbecue, in the heartland South and Southwest. And these zones just don’t overlap. (Yes, they have a gourmet-bread bakery in Austin. I suspect, if I went there, I’d find it a lot like the Chinese food in Ann Arbor — impressive to the locals, maybe, but only because their standards are so low.)
I could multiply examples. Sourdough bread — I’ve had it everywhere you can get it and it just doesn’t taste right outside of San Francisco. The East Coast versions are competent, but lack some subtle tang. Yeast strain? Something in the water? Who knows?
Cheesecake. There’s a good one. Anybody who has lived in New York won’t touch most cheesecake made elsewhere at gunpoint, and with good reason. Next to a traditional New-York-style baked cheesecake (the kind you can stand a fork in because it has the approximate density of neutronium) all others are a sort of pathetic, tasteless cheese gelatin. In this case the recipe is clearly what matters.
Or deep-dish pizza. Try to get that done right anywhere but Chicago. Good luck. Actually, the Philly/South Jersey area may be the only other part of the U.S.that can almost make this nut, and our thin-crust pizza is better. But why? Why don’t the good techniques go national and drive out the weaker competition?
The obvious answer would be that nationwide, tastes differ too much for one regional variant to dominate. But many cases there isn’t even any dispute about where the best variant comes from; the superiority of “New York style” cheesecake. for example, is so universally understood that restaurants elsewhere often bill their cheesecake that way even when it’s actually half-composed of “lite” garbage like ricotta or cottage cheese. Nobody who has ever tasted one doubts that Philly steaks are the acme of the art. And nobody — but nobody — who can get both passes up Texas barbecue for what they make in New Haven or Walla Walla.
So you’d think that the market would have propagated Texas slow-cooking, San Francisco yeast starters and the Philly steak roll all over the country by now. But some food technologies travel better than others, and some seem curiously unable to thrive outside their native climes. Cheesecake recipes may survive transmission relatively well, but the mysteries of good barbecue are subtle and deep. Pizzas rely on elaborate oven and dough-mix technology that probably tends to conserve regional variations simply because it’s too capital-intensive to mess with casually.
I’ve meditated on the matter and still can’t decide whether I think that’s a good thing or not. The approved thing for travel writers to do is wax lyrical about the wonderfulness of regional variety, as if it would somehow fail to be an improvement in the world if I could get decent bread with my barbecue. The hell with that kind of sentimentality; I’d rather have a better meal.
But there’s a point buried there somewhere — something that isn’t about the bread or the barbecue, but about what it feels like to sit in a dusty roadside joint like Rudy’s, surrounded by cases of Red Pop and overweight rednecks in tractor caps and checked shirts, with the food of the gods melting in your mouth, and thinking “Damn, this place is tacky, but I hope it lives forever.”
Eric S. Raymond, “The Non-Portability of Barbecue”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-07-18.
February 15, 2016
Posted something at the work blog today about these apps that help you do things you previously did with low-tech means, like assembling grocery lists. One of the comments praised a grocery app that gave you turn-by-turn instructions in your store. I never, ever want to hear my phone say “You have arrived at frozen breaded chicken patties.” The idea of people walking through a store, pushing a cart, staring at the screen to see where the coffee is located — as opposed to looking up for the word COFFEE — is the sort of thing from a comedic dystopia. Then: story in the WSJ the other day about someone else starting a service that delivers groceries to your house. The predicate for the business: “no one likes to go grocery shopping.”
I love to go grocery shopping. I went grocery shopping tonight; hit four stores in 90 minutes. Explain to me how it is possible to have an understanding of modern American culture without going to the grocery store. Someone who grocery-shops weekly has a better grasp on our civilization than somoene who spends four years getting a doctorate in Marketing. If they offer such things. I suspect that anyone interested in marketing gets out there and markets as soon as possible, and a doctorate would be useful only for teaching other people about Marketing, which you’ve never done, but studied.
It’s like Journalism school. Saying you understand Journalism because you went to Journalism school is like saying you have a command of the basics of Dentistry because you used a pencil to black out the teeth in a picture of someone’s head.
James Lileks, The Bleat, 2015-01-15.
February 7, 2016
Today during an otherwise terrible lecture on ADHD I realized something important we get sort of backwards.
There’s this stereotype that the Left believes that human characteristics are socially determined, and therefore mutable. And social problems are easy to fix, through things like education and social services and public awareness campaigns and “calling people out”, and so we have a responsiblity to fix them, thus radically improving society and making life better for everyone.
But the Right (by now I guess the far right) believes human characteristics are biologically determined, and biology is fixed. Therefore we shouldn’t bother trying to improve things, and any attempt is just utopianism or “immanentizing the eschaton” or a shady justification for tyranny and busybodyness.
And I think I reject this whole premise.
See, my terrible lecture on ADHD suggested several reasons for the increasing prevalence of the disease. Of these I remember two: the spiritual desert of modern adolescence, and insufficient iron in the diet. And I remember thinking “Man, I hope it’s the iron one, because that seems a lot easier to fix.”
Society is really hard to change. We figured drug use was “just” a social problem, and it’s obvious how to solve social problems, so we gave kids nice little lessons in school about how you should Just Say No. There were advertisements in sports and video games about how Winners Don’t Do Drugs. And just in case that didn’t work, the cherry on the social engineering sundae was putting all the drug users in jail, where they would have a lot of time to think about what they’d done and be so moved by the prospect of further punishment that they would come clean.
And that is why, even to this day, nobody uses drugs.
Scott Alexander, “Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-10.
January 25, 2016
In the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente explains why the great and the good at Davos are worried about the lumpenproles back home:
Forget APEC and the G20. Forget the climate-change summit. If you belong to the global elite, the only place that really counts is Davos – the yearly schmoozefest where central bankers and celebrities meet to network and exchange Big Thoughts. Where else can you party with both George Soros and Leonardo DiCaprio? When they invite you to Davos, you know you’ve arrived.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has arrived. This year he shared top billing with Mr. DiCaprio, the activist actor who has been nominated for an Oscar for being mauled by a bear. Everybody wants to get a load of the hottest star in politics. Besides, they need a break from the relentless doom and gloom.
But Davos Men aren’t like the rest of us. As Chrystia Freeland so memorably wrote in a famous 2011 piece in The Atlantic, they live increasingly in a world apart, “a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with” each other than with the folks back home. They live in gated communities and send their kids to private school. “The real community life of the 21st-century plutocracy occurs on the international conference circuit,” she wrote.
The gathering at the Swiss ski resort is as close as you can get to a pure meritocracy. All the people at Davos are the smartest people in the room. Like Mr. Trudeau, they are forward-looking and postnational. They believe that nationalist sentiment is a defect of the bitter clingers, who don’t understand that diversity (despite Cologne) is good for them. Unlike the bitter clingers, they are personally untouched by the seismic shifts underfoot. They’re on the winning side of change. Every year their lives get better and better.
But now, the bitter clingers are rising up, pitchforks at the ready. They are rallying behind Donald Trump – Trump! – in a massive rejection of every value a Davos Man holds dear. They’re convinced the elites have failed them. They blame the elites for the disruptions of globalization and technology that have stolen their jobs and their children’s futures.
They will never work at Google. And they’re mad as hell. They’ve lost all trust in the business and political and intellectual and celebrity class, jetting to their conferences 60,000 feet in the air. That includes the folks in Davos – the smartest people in the world, with no idea what to do.