Friday, October 22, 2021

Pejac

Another "street artist", the Spaniard Pejac, has become a major art world star. The oldest posts I have found about his art date to 2014, like this one. 

Here is a clever one done in Seoul in 2015.

He got a big boost in 2020 by creating works that commented on the pandemic; this is Overcoming.

One of his other gimmicks has been painting on pressed wood, using the grain as part of the composition.

But despite the gimmickism I think he is very talented, mainly in a dark vein. This is Counterweight, 2021.

Even his political "interventions" have a loveliness and arresting style. This is Landless Stranded, atop the Neo-Gothic Holy Cross Church in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. The commission was to create a work reflecting on the refugee crisis, but the artist says it represents all people who feel lost and threatened.

Drain I, 2021, a work that is getting a lot of exposure on the art blogs.


A work from 2018 for which I could not find a title.

Geography Lesson, 2020

Gentle Rain, 2018

Russia Clamps Down on Internet Freedom, and the West Says Nothing

Excellent long story in the NY Times about Russia's crackdown on the internet:

Russia’s boldest moves to censor the internet began in the most mundane of ways — with a series of bureaucratic emails and forms.

The messages, sent by Russia’s powerful internet regulator, demanded technical details — like traffic numbers, equipment specifications and connection speeds — from companies that provide internet and telecommunications services across the country. Then the black boxes arrived.

The telecom companies had no choice but to step aside as government-approved technicians installed the equipment alongside their own computer systems and servers. Sometimes caged behind lock and key, the new gear linked back to a command center in Moscow, giving authorities startling new powers to block, filter and slow down websites that they did not want the Russian public to see.

The process, underway since 2019, represents the start of perhaps the world’s most ambitious digital censorship effort outside of China

Among other things the Russian state has pressured Facebook and YouTube into taking down "illegal" posts and they have threatened to ban those sites altogether. Twitter has not complied with a series of similar requests, so they have radically slowed down the site's traffic, and now everything takes ten times as long to load.

Worried about the power of tech companies and the trouble that can be made online –organizing the January 6 uprising in the US, for example – western countries are saying little:

Russia’s censorship efforts have faced little resistance. In the United States and Europe, once full-throated champions of an open internet, leaders have been largely silent amid deepening distrust of Silicon Valley and attempts to regulate the worst internet abuses themselves. Russian authorities have pointed to the West’s tech industry regulation to justify its own crackdown.

I wonder if in twenty years we will all look back at the free internet era with some combination of nostalgia and relief that it is over.

Links 22 October 2021

Cornelis de Zeeuw, Portrait of a Young Man,1565

Freddie de Boer's very interesting review of Ross Douthat's new book on suffering from what he believes is chronic Lyme disease.

And one for our reader David: Freddie de Boer, a revolutionary socialist and probably the farthest left thinker I regularly read, explaining why he spends so much energy these days fighting woke excesses that he thinks are wrecking the left and the Democratic party.

Nine-minute Vox video on how systems of rainscreen cladding have completely changed the way buildings are built, and how they look.

Trump ally and QAnon supporter Michael Flynn has to rebut rumors among the QAnon faithful that he has become a Satanist. What did he really say about the sevenfold rays? What was the meaning of the girl in the red shoes?

The catholic diocese of Catania in Sicily bans godparents, because they serve as a way to reinforce mafia ties. (NY Times)

Interesting long review of a new biography of John Maynard Keynes that doubles as a reflection on the influence of Keynesian economics since his death in 1946.

All the people who got a tattoo of what they thought was a wolf skull, except it was really a raccoon skull. Turns out raccoon skulls look more badass.

When police send a skeleton to forensic anthropologists, they want to know its age, sex, height, and race. But the translation of skeletal characteristics into the racial categories of a nation that sometimes considers "Hispanic" to be a race, and where almost all black people have some European genes, is not simple, and this is starting to really bother practitioners who worry about imposing rigid racial categories on the dead. (NY Times)

Interesting White House Historical Association post on Elizabeth Keckly, author of the 1868 memoir Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.

Somebody on Reddit put together a little summary of the thought of economist/futurist Robin Hanson, clear, simple, interesting. The concept of inside vs outside perspectives is especially valuable, and it has a heading so you can go right to it if the rest bores you. "Scott" is of course Scott Siskind.

Succinct National Park Service article on protests against the Mexican-American War.

A long time ago, I think around 1980, I first learned of the studies that show loud sirens cause people to panic and act stupidly, embolden ambulance drivers and fire fighters to take foolish risks, and have minimal impact on how fast responders get anywhere. The studies still show this, but as you can probably guess this has had zero impact on the use of sirens. (NY Times)

Fighting loneliness through co-housing, a new word for intentional condominium communities. (NY Times)

The rise of fictional influencers.

This week's music is North American folk with Frazey Ford: Done, Runnin', September Fields, and one from her days with the Be Good Tanyas, The Littlest Birds Sing the Prettiest Songs.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Politics and Mental Health

Thomas Edsall finds a group of important papers on politics and psychology that show, from opposite perspectives, that conservatives are happier than liberals. (He doesn't get into this, but far left radicals are the least happy of all.) As he shows, you can interpret this divide according to your own politics. If you are a liberal, you argue that conservatives are better at ignoring injustice:

We consistently found conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers). This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style. We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals. . . . [This is] consistent with system justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function. 
"Rationalization" is a great word for insulting people you disagree with; I reason, you rationalize. And you have to love that there is a whole body of "system justification theory." But anyway, conservative social scientists of course see this differently:

Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades. . . .

Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general and in specific domains (e.g., marriage, job, residence), report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems, and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity.

I don't think it takes any fancy theorizing to understand this. Conservatives are, pretty much by definition, more comfortable with the world as it is, and less prone to thinking that it needs changing; liberals think it has glaring problems that require urgent action. Hence liberals worry more and feel more out of place. Also, some of the people who find the world as it is intolerable are going to be crazy, with the causality no doubt running in both directions; since these differences are not really that large, the existence of a small number of very unhappy radicals drives a good proportion of the difference. Not all of it, though; even moderate liberals with decent lives are a little less happy than conservatives. Edsall finds people who dispute this, but I think they are engaging in strange special pleading; the evidence we have points pretty clearly to conservatives being happier.

The deep importance of this finding is in pointing out once again that the political and psychological understandings of human life often diverge radically. I could not count the number of different ways I have seen liberals argue that people are unhappy because they world is unfair, and the only possible solution is to change the world. But according to some studies, the trait most strongly associated with happiness is acceptance. This only confirms a strain of old wisdom that exists all over the world: that the best route through life is to accept the world as it is and make the best of it, rather than railing against it. 

Random related psychological finding: if you don't, in the end, accept your losses, you never finish grieving.

Another thing that contributes to happiness is a sense of belonging. Which is why I am so ambivalent about nationalism. As a historian I understand very well that modern nations were manufactured and modern patriotism got up by political acts (including wars) and relentless propaganda. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that this works. National pride makes many people happy, and it also makes it much easier for them to participate in a democracy with people they disagree with. Where people don't feel at a deep level that they are part of a nation – which, again, is something created by propaganda – then democracy fails.

Plus, people just find change disturbing, and this is just as true for the poor as for the rich. Consider the reactions of poor people in cities when their neighborhoods start improving economically. Many see this as a threat, and they have dreamed up a whole body of pseudo theory called "gentrification" to justify/rationalize/explain those feelings.

But against the commonsense notion that if we all talked ourselves into being conservatives we would all be happier I would make two arguments: one, that the past just sucked for many people, from women trapped in abusive marriages to Untouchables. Two, that modern technological and economic progress are changing the world at such a rapid pace that the kind of conservatism we had in the early 1800s is simply no longer possible. So instead we get different ways of trying to reconcile conservative feelings with rapid change. Sometimes this is center-right parties that simply try to moderate change, but we also keep seeing right-wing movements that mingle conservative sentiments with various kinds of angry radicalism, giving us among other things World War II, perhaps the greatest catastrophe we humans ever inflicted on ourselves. Trying to be a conservative in a world of rapid change seems to come with its own costs.

Whenever I ponder these issues I end up thinking that the most plausible approach is balance. We should try to make the world better, but we should not exaggerate its horrors or believe that this or that change will radically improve anyone's life. We should participate in politics, but we should never tie our own happiness too strongly to the success of our faction. That gives things beyond our control too much power over us. There has to be an element of ourselves that we insulate from the world, a place where we focus on our own thoughts, our own beliefs, and the people closest to our hearts.

Nude Art and Social Media

This is an issue that has been making trouble for at least a decade, but it makes the news now because of amusing events in Austria (NY Times):

OnlyFans has a surprising new member: the Vienna Tourist Board.

No, its account will not feature after-hours photos of employees. Instead, the board will use the adults-only site to show images of paintings and sculptures displayed in the Austrian capital that have been blocked by social media sites for nudity or sexual content.

The offending artworks include the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000-year-old limestone figurine of a woman. Facebook removed a photo of it from the Vienna Museum of Natural History’s page several years ago for being “pornographic.”

There’s also “Liebespaar,” Koloman Moser’s early 20th-century painting, which the Leopold Museum included in a video post celebrating its anniversary in September. The video, which was blocked by the algorithms of Instagram and Facebook, “is a combination of details of the work and written feelings that are evoked by the painting,” said Christine Kociu, the museum’s social media manager. “It shows a nude couple embracing. It’s actually sweet.”

Which raises an interesting point about AI. I think it's impressive that the algorithm was even able to recognize a paleolithic figuring as a nude woman. But since we can't agree on what is pornographic, how will AI ever sort it out?

This also strikes me as another sign of the sexual divergence I have seen in our society, in which a public safe space of Victorian prudery coexists with a pornographic otherworld that is only a click away.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Søren Martinsen

Danish artist, born 1966, who has a thing for farms. Nocturne, 2012.

Super Sun, 2009

Kresten's Farm, 2010


Two in a different vein that I like very much, Flames and Black Water

One posted with no title, very much like many works from the early 1900s.

And a lithograph, Striped Fields. More at the artist's web site.

Robin Hanson on Dominance vs. Prestige

Robin Hanson has a go at explaining much about human society via a dichotomy between dominance and prestige. We, under this theory, mostly dislike being dominated, but admire prestige and are often willing to be led by prestigious people. So:

Bosses: It might seem odd to ask what bosses are for, as they have so many plausible functions to perform in orgs. Yet to explain many details, such as the kinds of people we pick for management, and the ways they spend their time, we must still ask which of these functions are the most important. And my guess is that one of the most important is to give workers excuses to obey them.

Here’s the simple story: we often have a choice about whether to frame an interaction as due to dominance or prestige. Humans are supposed to hate dominance, but to love prestige. So if we can frame our boss as prestigious, not dominant, we can tell ourselves and others that we are following their lead out of admiration and wanting to learn from them, not from fear of being fired. If so, firms will want to spend extra on hiring prestigious bosses, who are handsome, articulate, tall, well-educated, pro-social, smooth, etc., even if those features don’t that much improve management decisions. Which does in fact seem to be the case.

And:

Governance: we are even more sensitive to dominance in our political leaders than in our workplace bosses. Which was why all though history, each place tended to think they had a noble king, while neighbors had despicable tyrants. And why prestige was so important for kings. In the last few centuries we upped the ante via democracy, a supposedly prestigious mechanism wherein we pretend that all of us are really “ultimately” in control of the government, allowing us to claim that we are not being dominated by our leaders.

The main emotional drive toward socialism, regulation of business, and redistribution from the rich seems to me to be resentment of domination, which is how most people frame the fact that some have more money than others. Our ability to use democracy to frame government as prestige not domination lets us not see government agencies who regulate and redistribute as domination.
Obviously this is very schematic, but I suppose one could explain many features of recent US politics by noting that people bitterly resent rule by people by whom they have not, in their view, consented to be governed; hence, "not my president."

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Work Makes Us Crazy, Including the Essay Writers

The pandemic and now the looming return to the office have inspired a torrent of writing about how we should change our relationship to work. Which is great, work is something we ought to reassess continually. But what I am finding to read on this topic is strangely blinkered, shot through, it seems to me, with an improbably utopian vision of both economics and psychology.  

Right now the most widely read long screed in this vein is probably Jonathan Malesic's "The Future of Work Should Mean Working Less," which the editors of the NY Times spiced up with numerous reader responses to prompts like "I am never going back to _____" and "I resolve to _____"

You pick up on the problem with Malesic near the beginning when he starts quoting Thoreau – always a bad sign in any social thinker – zeroing in on one of the paradigmatically bad Thoreauisms:

We should look for purpose beyond our jobs and then fill work in around it. We each have limitless potential, a unique “genius,” as Henry David Thoreau called it. He believed that excessive toil had stunted the spiritual growth of the men who laid the railroad near Walden Pond, where he lived from 1845 to 1847. He saw the pride they took in their work but wrote, “I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”

If you're Wendell Berry and you really think we should all go back to being subsistence farmers, fine. But for the rest of us who like having trains (and cars, airplanes, computers, smartphones, sewer systems, solar panels, and so on) this is nonsense. If we're going to have anything, somebody has to make it, and much of that work is not going to be fun. To me, the fact that some things simply have to be done is absolutely missing from this whole discourse. 

Consider this line:

Pope Leo mentioned miners as deserving “shorter hours in proportion as their labor is more severe and trying to health.” Today, we might say the same about nurses, or any worker whose ordinary limitations — whether a bad back or a mental health condition — makes an intense eight-hour shift too much to bear.

But if an eight-hour shift as a hospital nurse is too much to bear (actually most hospital nurses work 12-hour shifts, but setting that aside) then who is going to take care of sick people? If we're going to cut the hours nurses work then we're either going to have to pay nurses less, or hire more of them and charge everybody more for health care. It's simple math. But simple math is, so far as I can tell, beyond the ken of Malesic and his ilk.

Consider this:

As it is, work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing. It’s much more than how we earn a living. It’s how we earn dignity: the right to count in society and enjoy its benefits. It’s how we prove our moral character. And it’s where we seek meaning and purpose, which many of us interpret in spiritual terms. . . . But work often doesn’t live up to these ideals. In our dissent from this vision and our creation of a better one, we ought to begin with the idea that each one of us has dignity whether we work or not. Your job, or lack of one, doesn’t define your human worth.

This view is simple yet radical. It justifies a universal basic income and rights to housing and health care. It justifies a living wage. It also allows us to see not just unemployment but retirement, disability and caregiving as normal, legitimate ways to live.

To which, ok, sure, people who can't work remain human, and Malesic has some good paragraphs on disabled people trying to recover their dignity. But how, exactly, are we suppose to work less and provide people with more: guaranteed housing, guaranteed health care, a universal basic income? Those things are expensive, which means it takes a gigantic amount of labor to make them happen. The world Malesic describes would require those of us who do work to somehow produce even more than we already do, which isn't going to leave us much time for pursuing our genius or even righting our work-life balance.

I think part of the reason so many people today anguish about the time they spend working is that we live in an extraordinarily rich world. We have a million things we could be doing instead, from video games and streaming movies to bike paths and National Parks. But if we all worked less, including the game designers and the film-makers and the novelists and the people who build bicycles and bike trails, and the park rangers, then our world would be less rich, and we would have a lot less to do. If the doctors and nurses and drug chemists worked less, we would die a lot younger and have much less time to explore our individual geniuses.

This is the heart of my beef with the whole anti-work movement. What, I want to ask, are you willing to give up? The answer, it seems to me, is usually "nothing." There are a few people out there who understand the equation, like the Times reader who wrote,

I resolve to: save more, stay put.

That is the sort of decision you have to make to actually escape from work.

But I see a persistent denial that there even is such an equation. One symptom of this denial is the obsession with David Graeber's book Bullshit Jobs. Which is an interesting book in which Graeber exposes the existence of thousands of pointless jobs that contribute pretty much nothing to anybody. This fascinates the anti-work people because they think Graeber has proved that much of our work is pointless, and if we could eliminate the bullshit we could all work less and be just as rich. Obviously this is true to some extent.

But when this sort of writer isn't complaining about bullshit work he or she is likely to be complaining about the relentless pressure to be productive, and how capitalism's profit motive puts the squeeze on everybody to work harder and stay focused on the bottom line. Which is also, to an extent, true. But these things cut against each other. A cursory study of human history will show you that there is no mechanism for fighting bullshit jobs like capitalism, and that the relentless pressures of the marketplace do in fact force people and companies to cut out bullshit wherever they can. That the system is far from perfect should be your clue that removing bureaucratic bullshit from human life is in fact an incredibly hard problem. The real elimination of bullshit jobs could probably only be achieved by even more ratcheting up of competition and pressure to be productive. In practice, bureaucratic bullshit actually creates some of the slack that makes our work lives bearable.

I am also skeptical, as my readers know, of the notion that people who don't have to work will find tons of other meaningful stuff to do. Some will, but many won't. Long bouts of unemployment are strongly associated with depression, not happiness.

I encourage all of you to rethink your relationship with work. Find other sources of meaning, limit the damage that work-related stress does to the rest of your brain, and the rest of your life. Question the notion that this or that has to be done.

But work is at the center of human life for deep reasons. It remains simply true that the less people work, the less stuff we will have to enjoy, and it remains true for most of us that vast stretches of unproductive time are a curse as often as a blessing.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Pain and Politics

When one group of people in society feels unheard for so long, in time they form a crusade, and the object of that crusade is the most human of all demands: feel our pain. It is natural to want the world to understand our suffering as something different, something deeper, something special. The cacophony of our political lives stems in no small part from the ceaselessly multiplying number of groups that ask that their suffering be seen as something transcendent and unique. The trouble, of course, is that we’re all suffering, and in fact to suffer is the least special, most ordinary thing any person can do. 

– Freddie de Boer

Links 15 October 2021

Rembrandt, A Scholar in His Study, c. 1652 (detail)

The mystery of how hundreds of postcards came to have exactly the same sky.

Delightful staircase murals in Lima, Peru.

According to Gallup, Republicans' confidence in big business has fallen significantly in the past year, and their confidence in big tech companies has gone down even more.

Caltech's new walking, flying drone explained in a one-minute video. To me it has a strong Star Wars vibe.

How universal are human emotions? (This article starts with a major error, stating that the view that emotions are universal was originated the 1960s, when it actually goes back at least to the ancient Stoics, and Darwin was among its great advocates; but don't give up, it gets better on more recent stuff.)

Sensible Vox update on where we stand with driverless car technology.

Drone photo award winners.

Long essay by Jay Caspian Kang about Asian American identity and how he feels listening to Bruce Springsteen (NY Times)

Excavating the remains of a V-2 rocket in England.

A fossil tardigrade found trapped in amber.

The strange worldwide problem of cargo ships abandoned by their owners with their unpaid crews still onboard.

Lovely flower murals painted on Beirut's rubble.

The "Opportunity Zones" tax avoidance scam, created by Congress, made into a scandal by governors who saw opportunity everywhere. (NY Times)

NY Times review of what sounds like an interesting book by a American immigrant from an elite Filipino family. And yet he keeps asking questions like, "Why was America so kind and yet so cruel?' Dude, life is so kind and so cruel; being in America has nothing to do with it.

Lots of fooferaw in the news about the bad effects of social media on the mental health of girls, but no real evidence supports these worries. (NY Times)

The Biden administration proposes building offshore wind farms along large parts of the US coastline. 

Inflatable tires are a major source of pollution: designed to wear out, prone to failure, difficult to recycle. People have been talking about replacement technologies for decades. Airless tires are already on the market, greatly reducing the number of flats and tires disposed because of them; now there it talk of commercially viable unified wheels that last as long as the vehicle, largely eliminating the need for disposable tires.

Charming paintings of Korean corner stores by Lee Me Kyeoung.

I know I harp on this too much, but it was forced on me by my children's elementary school teachers. Anyway, here is the National Museum of the American Indian: "Question: What is the correct terminology: American Indian, Indian, Native American, Indigenous, or Native? Answer: All of these terms are acceptable."

Interesting review of Bryan Caplan's graphic novel-style book on immigration, Open Borders.

What does a wikipedia article look like when the experts don't agree on anything? Consider this article on the size of Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He's "treasure ships."

In the US, people over 65 are more likely to vote Republican, more likely to support Trump, more likely to watch Fox News, and generally prone to believe online misinformation, but more than 95% have been vaccinated for Covid-19. (NY Times)

This week's music is Khatia Buniatishvili playing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

George Orwell's Definition of Nationalism

From Notes on Nationalism, 1945:

A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist – that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating – but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the up-grade and some hated rival is on the down-grade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being in the right. 

And this analysis of what he means in the case of Europe in the 1940s:

Now that I have given this lengthy definition, I think it will be admitted that the habit of mind I am talking about is widespread among the English intelligentsia, and more widespread there than among the mass of the people. For those who feel deeply about contemporary politics, certain topics have become so infected by considerations of prestige that a genuinely rational approach to them is almost impossible. Out of the hundreds of examples that one might choose, take this question: Which of the three great allies, the U.S.S.R., Britain and the U.S.A., has contributed most to the defeat of Germany? In theory it should be possible to give a reasoned and perhaps even a conclusive answer to this question. In practice, however, the necessary calculations cannot be made, because anyone likely to bother his head about such a question would inevitably see it in terms of competitive prestige. He would therefore start by deciding in favour of Russia, Britain or America as the case might be, and only after this would begin searching for arguments that seemed to support his case. And there are whole strings of kindred questions to which you can only get an honest answer from someone who is indifferent to the whole subject involved, and whose opinion on it is probably worthless in any case. Hence, partly, the remarkable failure in our time of political and military prediction. It is curious to reflect that out of all the ‘experts’ of all the schools, there was not a single one who was able to foresee so likely an event as the Russo-German Pact of 1939. And when news of the Pact broke, the most wildly divergent explanations were of it were given, and predictions were made which were falsified almost immediately, being based in nearly every case not on a study of probabilities but on a desire to make the U.S.S.R. seem good or bad, strong or weak. Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties. And aesthetic judgements, especially literary judgements, are often corrupted in the same way as political ones. It would be difficult for an Indian nationalist to enjoy reading Kipling or for a Conservative to see merit in Mayakovsky, and there is always a temptation to claim that any book whose tendency one disagrees with must be a bad book from a literary point of view. People of strongly nationalistic outlook often perform this sleight of hand without being conscious of dishonesty.

The Art Institute of Chicago Fires its Volunteer Docents

The Art Institute of Chicago just fired all 122 of its volunteer docents, who acted as guides to the Museum's collections.

Despite the lack of remuneration—they do this to be helpful and because they love art—their training to be docents is extremely rigorous. First, they have to have two training sessions per week for eighteen months, and then “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas” (quote from the docents’ letter to the Director of the AIC). On top of that, there’s monthly and biweekly training on new exhibits. Then there are the tours themselves, with a docent giving up to two one-hour tours per day for 18 weeks of the year and a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families. Their average length of service: 15 years. 

So they just tossed more than a thousand years of experience in working at their museum. And why? Well, the triggering factor here was the museum's quest for diversity. The volunteers were mostly older white women from backgrounds I think it is fair to call "privileged." The museum tried for years to recruit a more diverse group of docents, but they never succeeded. The museum found an almost all white, female, and over 60 workforce to be a bad look, so they are replacing the volunteers with professional guides who will be paid a starting wage of $25/hour.

The stories I have seen all picture this as part of a fashionable drive for racial diversity, but really this is a deeper problem. Art Museums worry a lot about their fan base, because it is mostly white, educated and older, and they really want to draw in more young people not from stereotypically museum-going groups. It may well be that this is doomed, and that they would do better to double down on the people already attracted to museums, but anyway that is not the route they are taking. 

Also, organizations that rely on volunteers can become captive to them. In a lot of places, what the volunteers want, they get. They are difficult for management to control, since, after all, you're not paying them. If you depend on volunteers to stay open, what happens if you want to make changes that piss your volunteers off? Maybe you can't afford to. And if your volunteers are older and very much attached to the way they have been doing things, does that limit how much you can change? I'm not saying, mind you, that this is always a problem, but sometimes it has been.

I know something about this because it is a major issue for my biggest client, the National Park Service. They use a lot of volunteers for many different tasks, but public interpretation is only occasionally one of them. They moved away from that practice because of concerns about who those volunteers are and what they might be saying. Consider what sort of person would volunteer to be a guide on a Civil War battlefield in the South. You can give them a script and train them on sensitivity, but you can't control what they will say in response to an unexpected question. 

The public face you show to visitors matters. They will, generally, be best at relating to and drawing in people like them. They may resist change in how they work. (Which might not always be a bad thing, since the NPS is as vulnerable to fads as other bureaucracies, but anyway the NPS wants to have control of its message.)

And then there is the question of privilege. Having the time to volunteer, especially at a place like the Art Institute of Chicago or the National Park Service that requires a lot of training, really is a privilege. Most of the candidates will be retired people with college educations. From the perspective of a young person who wants to work in museums or parks, the competition from all those retired folks who can afford to work for free is a real issue. I think that as a general rule institutions that can afford to pay people should.

But of course there is also another side; if you are comfortably retired, want to remain active, and know things worth sharing, what are you supposed to do? I just wrote that if you volunteer you may be taking jobs away from young people who need them, but if you stay in your old job because you can't see anything meaningful to do in retirement, aren't you just competing with young people in another way? The question of how retired people can keep meaningful lives is also an important one, every bit as vital as the ones faced by 25-year-olds that I write about so much.

If you want to get mad about this as more woke anti-racism, fine; that's the angle taken by Jerry Coyne, from whom I learned about this. But I see it as a piece of a much bigger question about volunteers vs. professionals, and what that means both for the institutions and for the people who do the work. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

RIP Paddy Moloney

The Chieftains have been a phenomenon. For nearly 50 year they toured more, recorded more, and collaborated with more other musicians than any other band I can think of. In fact I often wondered what their lives were like, since they seemed to be so constantly on the move around the world. They did more to preserve and spread traditional Irish music than anyone else ever has. Paddy Moloney was their founder and guiding spirit, so I toast his memory.  Here are some of the tracts they recorded with famous collaborators:

The Long Black Veil with Mick Jagger

Have I Told You Lately with Van Morrison

Mo Ghile Mear with Sting

The Foggy Dew with Sinead O'Connor (that's Moloney on the pipes)

Raglan Road with Joan Osborne

Down the Old Plank Road with John Hiatt

Dark as a Dungeon with Vince Gill

Lily of the West with Mark Knopfler

Lukey's Boat with Great Big Sea. (If you compare this version to one Great Big Sea recorded on their own, you see what The Chieftains brought to their collaborators: this one is ten times more lively, fun, and beautiful)

And an instrumental number, O'Sullivan's March

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Nobel Prizes for Natural Experiments

Good piece at Marginal Revolutions on the new Nobel Prize winners in economics, David Card, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imben. They won the prize for developing techniques to do one of the hardest things in social science, isolating the effect of a single change on a system with many, many variables. The trick is that rather than trying to list all the possible confounders and "correct" for them, you search for some sort of control group and set up, after the fact, a "natural experiment." Like this:

The obvious way to estimate the effect of the minimum wage is to look at the difference in employment in fast food restaurants before and after the law went into effect. But other things are changing through time so circa 1992 the standard approach was to “control for” other variables by also including in the statistical analysis factors such as the state of the economy. Include enough control variables, so the reasoning went, and you would uncover the true effect of the minimum wage. Card and Krueger did something different, they turned to a control group.

Pennsylvania didn’t pass a minimum wage law in 1992 but it’s close to New Jersey so Card and Kruger reasoned that whatever other factors were affecting New Jersey fast food restaurants would very likely also influence Pennsylvania fast food restaurants. The state of the economy, for example, would likely have a similar effect on demand for fast food in NJ as in PA as would say the weather. In fact, the argument extends to just about any other factor that one might imagine including demographics, changes in tastes, changes in supply costs. The standard approach circa 1992 of “controlling for” other variables requires, at the very least, that we know what variables are important. But by using a control group, we don’t need to know what the other variables are only that whatever they are they are likely to influence NJ and PA fast food restaurants similarly. Put differently NJ and PA are similar so what happened in PA is a good estimate of what would have happened in NJ had NJ not passed the minimum wage.

As MR points out, this wasn't new in 1992, but has roots going back to the 1840s. But this approach has become much more sophisticated lately, and people are using it in many clever ways, thanks in part to these folks.

UPDATE:

Here is Paul Krugman at the NY Times explaining that these techniques have in general made economics more liberal:

Overall, then, modern data-driven economics tends to support more activist economic policies: Raising wages, helping children and aiding the unemployed are all better ideas than many politicians seem to believe. But why do the facts seem to support a progressive agenda?

The main answer, I’d argue, is that in the past many influential people seized on economic arguments that could be used to justify high inequality. We can’t raise the minimum wage, because that would kill jobs; we can’t help the unemployed, because that would hurt their incentives to work; and so on. In other words, the political use of economic theory has tended to have a right-wing bias.

But now we have evidence that can be used to check these arguments, and some don’t hold up. So the empirical revolution in economics undermines the right-leaning conventional wisdom that had dominated discourse. In that sense, evidence turns out to have a liberal bias.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Love and Honor

These enamel earrings in the shape of hands hold pieces of shrapnel removed from the eye and forehead of Denmark’s King Christian IV (1577-1648) after he was wounded in battle. He gave the earrings to his mistress.  Via Roses-and-Rue.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Donna Tartt, "The Secret History"

The Secret History (1992) is the founding volume in a minor literary trend called "dark academia," a genre in which students and professors at elite New England colleges do deadly, disturbing things, accompanied a great deal of thought, feeling, and eccentricity.

I have now read two Donna Tartt books, the other being The Goldfinch (2013), and they have certain things in common. The characters drink so much that just reading about it makes my head spin. They can't sleep, so they dose themselves with sleeping pills or opiates, generally on top of a whole day of drinking. Their families are broken, twisted, and bad. Most of them are men, and their relationships with women, if they have any, go badly; instead they have vaguely homoerotic friendships with other men. A few of the women are ok, but the ones who stand out are truly awful people sunk in vanity, frivolity, and yet more drugs. Despite this, most of her readers are women. All of this Tartt-ness got in the way of my enjoying The Secret History, since my mind kept wandering from the story to psychoanalysis of the author.

The Secret History focuses on six students an an imaginary elite college in Vermont, circa 1980. They and a single professor constitute the entirety of the school's classics department. They take almost all of their classes together, with that same professor, a brilliant teacher and astonishing snob. There is an element of educational fantasy in this, seven people around a table discussing ancient texts and the deep truths they embody. At the beginning of one class the professor says, "I hope you are now ready to leave the phenomenal world behind and enter the sublime."

Two of the six students are very wealthy, and they all spend a lot of time together at a country estate belonging one's family. It is there that they get up to no good, taking certain aspects of the classical heritage too far and doing something BAD. From that crime, or mistake, or whatever it was, dark ripples spread outward through their world, eventually tearing it apart.

My friends in classics tell me that classics people all love it. My elder daughter said, "of course they do, it makes them seem interesting." And it does. The characters are interesting, the setting is interesting, interesting things happen, and people talk about it all with intelligence and style. If this sounds like something you might like, read it.

Friday, October 8, 2021

George Cruikshank, Illustrations to "Guy Fawkes"

George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was an English engraver who earned most of his living doing satirical illustrations for newspapers and magazines, which have aged about as well as you would expect. But when I was at the British Museum web site looking up John Dee's obsidian mirror, I was tempted by a button that promised me all of the museum's other holdings that relate to Dee. Unable to control myself, I clicked. The most interesting thing that turned up was this engraving by Cruikshank, titled, "Dr. Dee checks the pulse of Guy Fawkes while his assistant John Kelly looks on." What?

This turned out to be an illustration for an 1840 novel, titled Guy Fawkes, by a certain William Ainsworth. This forgotten tale, of which E.A. Poe said that the style was "turgid pretension," mixed up the actual story of the Gunpowder Plot with a lot of supernatural stuff in which John Dee figures prominently. Here Fawkes lays a trail of gunpower to the barrels beneath the Houses of Parliament.

Something about these illustrations grabbed me, so I hunted down several more. Here "Guy Fawkes and Humphrey Chetham appear from a secret room to rescue Father Oldcorne and Viviana Radcliffe from a pursuivant." 

Guy Fawkes falls asleep at Saint Winifrid's Well and Winifrid herself appears to him in a dream. This one reminds me of Edward Gorey.

Dee summons spirits to answer Fawkes' questions. They told him the plot was doomed and he would be killed, but he went ahead anyway.

Kelly and Dee exhume a body for necromantic purposes while Fawkes looks on.

Fawkes' arrest.

And Fawkes mounting the scaffold.

Plus a self portrait Cruikshank drew on the back of a handbill in 1858

John Dee's Mirror

Elizabethan magus John Dee, who was involved in everything from mapping the Atlantic Ocean to alchemy to music theory to the most bizarre occultism, sometimes used a "magic mirror" to speak with spirits. One mirror has been preserved in the British Museum that may have been his. Notes in the hand of Horace Walpole call it "The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his Spirits." Walpole (1717-1797), author of the first gothic novel and builder of the first neogothic house, was among other things a collector of arcane objects and especially prints of subjects like witches' sabbaths. So he was something of an authority, and if he says this was Dee's mirror, it might well be. He even traced some of its provenance, noting that it had been in the collection of the Earls of Peterborough.

And how many obsidian mirrors were there in eighteenth-century England anyway?

Typical of Walpole that he also supplied a poetic epigram in this note:

Kelly was Dr Dee's Associate and is mentioned with this very Stone in Hudibras, Part 2. Canto 3 v.631. Kelly did all his feats upon The Devil's Looking-glass, a Stone.

This mirror is in the news because some scientists have run a sample of it through their elemental analyzer and discovered that it is from Mexico, likely the very same quarry at Pachuca from which the Aztecs got stone for their own mirrors. It looks like an Aztec mirror, and had long been supposed to be one, but this nails it down. Dee almost certainly knew where this mirror came from, since he was very involved in supporting the exploration of the New World and publishing the discoveries made there. I find that interesting. Did he think the mirror might be imbued with arcane devilry, or even soaked with the blood of human sacrifices? Or did he just think that the Aztecs had the best obsidian?

Miles Cleveland Goodwin

Interesting American artist, born 1980 in Biloxi, Mississippi. I don't like all of his stuff but what I do like, I like a lot. Many more at his web site, high quality images. Above, Resurrection, 2016.

Apple Orchard with Crows, 2020

Queen Anne's Lace, 2019

Sunflowers and Moon, 2020

Links 8 October 2021

Astonishing Rhamphorhynchus fossil from the Solnhofen
limestone beds in Germany, c. 150 million years old

What if you split up and then OkCupid said the person you were most compatible with (98%) was your ex? (NY Times)

Scott Siskind reviews The Scout Mindset, another book telling you how to improve your own thinking and perhaps get other people to improve theirs, too. He also shares his thoughts on what happened to the Rationalist project of the 2000s. 

And an amusing Siskind piece on the fake conspiracy theory of Tartaria, which says that buildings and art used to be so much more beautiful because those societies were actually much richer and more advanced than our own, and the history that says we are progressing is just a lie invented to cover up our catastrophic decline. ("A third-rate sixteenth-century merchant would have been ashamed to live in any building as base as Google's new headquarters.") This led to a great debate about architecture in his comments, and he reposted the best of it here.

Video of Hurricane Sam's 50-foot waves from a surfboard-sized floating drone, interesting but with nothing for scale it's hard to get a sense of what you're seeing.

Astonishing arrays of book covers that all use the same images, from Eye on Design.

Paul McCartney as in icon of productivity and career management.

Geo-engineering to fight climate change (NY Times)

Some historic South Carolina plantations are shifting their tourist programs from trying to draw curious white folks to trying to draw the descendants of people enslaved on the plantation. Hard to believe such a good article on a difficult topic ended up on Yahoo; some young journalist is working very hard for little reward.

Loving words redacted from the published versions of Marie Antoinette's letters to her "very good friend" Count Axel von Fersen.

If long-dead composers were earning royalties on Spotify, Bach would get the most at $299,000 a year. Others here.

Biohackers encode a virus in DNA that, if scanned by a DNA sequencer, becomes a computer virus and takes over the computer running the sequencer.

Fully autonomous robot weapons may have killed people in Libya last year. James Dawes thinks this is really bad.

Animals in the Popol Vuh, and in Maya myth more generally. Interesting on the Maya but I find it irritating when anthropologists insinuate that western culture has some sort of monolithic and dismal view of other species.

At the annual Roadworks Festival, the San Francisco Center for the Book uses a 1920 steamroller to print linocuts in the street.

Herds of life sized elephant sculptures installed in London.

Interesting Tyler Cowen interview with Claudia Goldin, Harvard economic professor who has written a lot about gender issues. (Including a study I blogged about here on which women change their names after marriage.) Notable that even though she is a Harvard professor, surely one of the most arrogant groups on the planet, she still says "I don't know" more than any of Cowen's male guests.

Does Ethiopia have a future?

Foundations of one of the first black churches in the US unearthed in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Pair of skis recovered from a Norwegian ice patch in 2014 now dated to circa 700 AD, making them the world's oldest.

The zookeeper who became the husband of an endangered crane.

This week's music is Loreena KcKennit singing old Irish folk tunes: The Wind that Shakes the Barley, As I Roved Out, On a Bright May Morning.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Authoritarianism and Meaning

Thomas Edsall, asking about why people think Trump won the 2020 election, stumbled onto academic papers arguing that people embrace authoritarian ideas in pursuit of a more meaningful life (NY Times). Which is not a new idea; many people have offered it as an explanation of Nazism, including most recently Karl Owe Knausgaard. This is from a 2021 paper by Jake Womick and others:

Authoritarian messages influence people on two separable levels, the affective level, lowering positive and enhancing negative affect, and the existential level, enhancing meaning in life.
Definitions of “meaning in life”
include at least three components, significance, the feeling that one’s life and contributions matter to society; purpose, having one’s life driven by the pursuit of valued goals; and coherence or comprehensibility, the perception that one’s life makes sense.
In another paper the authors argue that:
It may seem ironic that authoritarianism, a belief system that entails sacrifice of personal freedom to a strong leader, would influence the experience of meaning in life through its promotion of feelings of personal significance. Yet, right wing authoritarianism does provide a person with a place in the world, as a loyal follower of a strong leader. In addition, compared to purpose and coherence, knowing with great certainty that one’s life has mattered in a lasting way may be challenging. Handing this challenge over to a strong leader and investment in societal conventions might allow a person to gain a sense of symbolic or vicarious significance. . . .

perceptions of insignificance may lead individuals to endorse relatively extreme beliefs, such as authoritarianism, and to follow authoritarian leaders as a way to gain a sense that their lives and their contributions matter. . . .
Despite its negative social implications, right wing authoritarianism serves an existential meaning function. This existential function is primarily about facilitating the sense that one’s life matters. This existential buffering function is primarily about allowing individuals to maintain a sense that they matter during difficult experiences.

The great weakness of liberalism for many people is its emptiness. It denies as a matter of principle that a nation can share much in the way of purpose or identity, or any values beyond tolerance. Rather than telling you what your life should be about, it instructs you to go find your own purpose. Instead of offering citizens simple choices – with us or against us – it asks them to understand complex questions for themselves and take part in developing equally complex responses. It leaves many people utterly cold. 

I don't personally have this problem; I can get all excited and rosy feeling about tolerance and democracy. It took me decades to understand how much like nothing this seems to many people.

I was reading recently about an Afro-Caribbean woman (Beryl Gilroy) who moved to England in the 1950s, who seems to have been genuinely baffled that so many people thought she could never be English. But an identity that someone can assume simply by crossing a border strikes many people as pure nothingness. A national identity, they feel, should imply a great deal more than a flag. It should come with a shared language and vocabulary; with a history, and pride in that history; with a shared outlook on life; with national ways of eating and drinking and talking; with cheering for the national sports teams and toasting the national heroes; with dislike toward the nation's enemies; with a deep-down belief that this nation is the best, and the things that make it distinctive are good things worth fighting for. Defending that nation against attacks of any sort, including accusations that its heroes were really murderous slavers or whatever, gives some people a sense of belonging and purpose.

I sometimes think that historical revisionists don't have any sense of what they are asking people to give up. What are you offering people to replace the strength they drew from believing in the greatness of their ancestors? If your answer is "nothing," you are in for a world of trouble.

I don't think revisionism has to work this way, certainly not in the US. I think Americans can do very well with retelling our story as the gradual expansion of freedom, the way liberals from Benjamin Franklin to Barack Obama liked to tell it. But something like the the 1619 Project is just a grenade lobbed into the debate, and it is going to work like a grenade does.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Wangechi Mutu

Kenyan-American artist, born 1972, moved to the US in the 1990s. She works in sculpture, photography, film, collage, acrylic paint, performance art, and more. Very big right now; the Met just bought two of her sculptures. She is my idea of a successful avant garde artist; her stuff is strange, and some of it fails with me, but when it works it has the shock of the new.



Tuesday, October 5, 2021

The Chinese Crackdown: Xi Jinping and Teddy Roosevelt

In the Times, Paul Mozur has a very interesting take on events in China. A while back, I presented Victor Mair's view that China's crackdown on, among other things, shady business practices, LGTBQ student groups, and effeminate male pop stars represented a return to the politics of the Cultural Revolution. Mozur prefers a different analogy, that of American Progressives taking on the business titans of the Gilded Age:

Chinese tech companies are reeling from regulation. Nervous creditors are hoping for a bailout for China’s largest developer. Growing numbers of executives are going to jail. An entire industry is shutting down.

For China’s leader, Xi Jinping, it’s all part of the plan.

Under Mr. Xi, China is reshaping how business works and limiting executives’ power. Long in coming, but rapid in execution, the policies are driven by a desire for state control and self-reliance as well as concerns about debt, inequality and influence by foreign countries, including the United States.

Emboldened by swelling nationalism and his success with Covid-19, Mr. Xi is remaking China’s business world in his own image. Above all else, that means control. Where once executives had a green light to grow at any cost, officials now want to dictate which industries boom, which ones bust and how it happens. . . . 

The goal is to fix structural problems, like excess debt and inequality, and generate more balanced growth. Taken together, the measures mark the end of a Gilded Age for private business that made China into a manufacturing powerhouse and a nexus of innovation. Economists warn that authoritarian governments have a shaky record with this type of transformation, though they acknowledge that few have brought such resources and planning to the effort.

This ignores the moral crusades that have lately gotten so much attention, but then our memory of the Progressive Era has the same blindness: the leading Progressives were mostly for Prohibition, anti-prostitution crusades, crackdowns on crime, and so on.

Anyway, I want to take Mozur's argument seriously for a moment. Suppose he is right, and what Xi and his people want is what Teddy Roosevelt wanted, and what economic populists everywhere want, whether they are left or right: jail for corrupt billionaires, an end to people getting rich off stock manipulation, a diversion of talent and resources away from get-rich-quick schemes and social media tricks toward the building of real things; a shift of attention from bankers or influencers to workers and parents. 

I wonder; it is possible to do such a thing without being seen by a wide swath of opinion as dictatorial? Not that I'm saying Xi and his people aren't dictatorial, I'm asking if the aims Mozur attributes to them could be promoted without raising cries of alarm. Certainly American Progressivism, and even more the New Deal, were met by exactly such accusations.

One thing that is clear about Xi's recent moves is that he wants to promote manufacturing and cares not a fig for online retail or social media. The one big Chinese tech company that seems to remain a government favorite is Huawei, which focuses on building fundamental gear for running wireless networks. Millions of Americans wish our government would show the same bias.

One of the developments that frightens people about events in China is the new prominence of Communist Party cells within corporations. These have always existed, but they have now been empowered to overrule corporate leadership when their decisions, in the eyes of the CP, put their own interests over those of the nation. Haven't many political factions in both the US and Europe dreamed of the same thing?

I regular hear people say some version of "everyone on Wall Street should be shot." Well?

Watching China over the past 40 years has been an object lesson in the power of global capitalism. Across much of the country extreme poverty has nearly disappeared. Hundreds of millions have joined the middle class. The cities have been transformed. Yes, this was accompanied by environmental devastation and sweatshop working conditions for millions, but I doubt you will find many Chinese people interested in going back to the 1970s.

But of course all of this comes at a high cost. One factor that bothers many Chinese is the influence of global corporations, which directly or indirectly have invested a trillion dollars in China and control much of its industry. We have also seen the crazy speculative bubbles that seem to accompany capitalism everywhere, with fortunes made and lost in gambling that seems at best tangentially related to the real economy. We have seen the rise of billionaires and staggering inequality. Intense meritocratic competition has taken over the schools.

Suppose Xi and company really wanted to fix these problems. Could they do it? If, along the way, they randomly jail a few hundred executives whose behavior has not really been worse than average; if they impose stricter limits on what people can say, or where they can say it; if they ruin a few dozen outspoken internet personalities; would it be worth it?

How much do we really care about equality, and what would we give up to get it? Is the craziness of our world, the inequality and the attention lavished on ludicrous celebrities, the inevitable price of real freedom?

Ian Frazier, "On the Rez"

Another book review from my old blog:

In the first chapter of On the Rez (2000), a book about life among the Sioux at Pine Ridge, Ian Frazier explains that he likes Indians because he admires their devotion to freedom. He describes in a series of moving paragraphs the history of this devotion, and of the price paid for it, over the past 400 years. He mentions Powhatan scoffing at English offers of vassalage, explaining that he is a king, too, and will bow to no one. He tells of Red Cloud, brought before a Senate committee in Washington, so unimpressed by their threats that he refused a chair and took his seat on the floor, where he said, "I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man." Frazier recounts the long struggle for independence waged by the Sioux, the Apache, and other western tribes, and he praises their "centuries of resistance to authority, intractability and independent-mindedness." He longs for the America described by Amerigo Vespucci, where "everyone is his own master." "We live," he complains,

in a craven time I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated communism, new seems to be about to do the same thing to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can't be nice, we'd better at least be neutral. In the service economy, anyone who sat where he pleased in the presence of power or who expatiated on his own greatness would soon be out the door. "Who does he think he is?" is how the dismissal is usually framed. The dream of many of us is that someday we might miraculously have enough money that we could quit being nice, and everybody would then have to be nice to us, and niceness would surround us like a warm dome. Certain speeches we would love to make accompany this dream, glorious, blistering tellings-off of those to whom we usually hold our tongue. The eleven people who actually have enough money to do that are icons to us..... Unlike the rest of us, they can deliver those speeches with no fear: The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air--freedom to be and to say, whenever, regardless of disapproval--has become a luxury most of us can't afford.
I have thought about the freedom of the plains Indians for many years, since I read a stack of books about them in a course on legal anthropology. There is something in what Frazier says-- among the horse-riding peoples of the plains, men were very free and defended their freedom at great cost. But, I wonder, what does their way of life really have to offer the 21st century?

I should point out, first, that Frazier errs when he attributes to the eastern Indians the same sort of freedom-loving lifestyle he finds in the west. Powhatan, after all, was a king, and while he loved his own freedom his subjects who dared to defy him generally had their heads bashed in. The Aztecs were Indians, too, and we know what happened to their rebels. I should also point out that the freedom Frazier admires was limited to men—and I will argue in a minute that this was an essential part of it. I do find it remarkable, though, that men of the plains tribes generally refused to obey orders from anybody, and this rather extraordinary fact raises, for me, some questions about why we live in a society where freedom is so tightly circumscribed.

There is a terrific scene in Dances with Wolves in which the old chief, faced with a tough challenge, invites Kevin Costner to sit down and have a smoke. As they smoke and talk, the chief tries to persuade Costner to see things his way. This was how chiefs in these tribes really operated. They could offer advice, but most of the time they could not give orders, because no self-respecting man would do anything that a chief commanded him to. His personal honor would not permit it. A war leader who wanted to lead a raid would say, "I want to attack the Pawnee" (or whomever), and those who wanted to go, went. The others stayed home. If a dispute arose between two men over, say, a debt, the chiefs, the elders, or their friends would try to persuade them to agree on a settlement, and there was no court that could order either man to submit to a resolution he felt unjust.

Unfortunately, this utopian system didn't work very well, and murder was the all-too-frequent outcome of conflict. All of our stories of plains life are full of killings, and many of the most famous chiefs were killers. As a result, the chiefs spent a great deal of their time and energy trying to mediate between the families of victims and the families of their killers, so that each murder would not lead to an unending cycle of revenge. The violence of plains life was, in a sense, the necessary consequence of the freedom, for there was no institution to restrain bullies or force peace between enemies, no way to control these free men except death or the threat of it.

The chiefs saw most killings, not as crimes needing to be avenged, but as wounds in the society that needed to be healed. Most of the tribes ritualized this notion. Among the Cheyenne, a killing was held to bloody the sacred arrows of the tribe, and all ritual life had to cease until the arrows could be cleansed. The cleansing could not take place until the killing had been resolved in some form. According to the information we have, the most common resolution was for the killer's family to pay compensation to the victim's kin (often a number of horses), and then for the killer himself to undertake a period of voluntary exile. Note that the killer was not exiled by the chiefs; he had to be persuaded to leave freely, for the good of the community. Of course, the threat that some relative of his victim would kill him in turn was an added incentive to go, but one imagines this was left unsaid as much as possible, so as not to insult the killer by insinuating that he was afraid. In any event, he left for several years. He went to a neighboring tribe with whom his own tribe had an understanding about such exiles; given the number of killings in our stories, exiles must have been a regular feature of Indian life.

As a system of criminal justice, the plains way has many advantages: it was generally humane, and through negotiation and ritual it often managed to use potentially disruptive violence as a way of bonding the community closer together. It also avoided the dehumanizing, oppressive machinery of the state--the prison, the courtroom, the gas chamber--that burdens the "civilized" world. On the other hand, it didn't deter crime very well and it did not always succeed in keeping the community together. Plains tribes frequently split into factions that lived apart for years, sometimes forming new, long-lasting entities.

As a model for us, the Plains way has an even greater weakness, which is that it depended on the low density of people on the land, and on their great mobility. When two people couldn't get along, they lived apart. When two groups couldn't get along, they packed up their teepees and rode off in different directions. It seems to me that this model also depends on the matrilineal structure of the society, and the small role played by fathers in their children's upbringing. In the cases I have read, men always just head off by themselves, leaving their families behind. What happened to women killers I do not know, since there don't seem to be many examples in the record, but it doesn't seem to have bothered these people that men should leave their families for 7 years if need be. Surely most killers were young men, as they are in every society, but some Indian men married and fathered children in their teens, so many of these exiles must have been abandoning children. This made so little impression on the Indians who told these stories that they didn't even bother to mention it. The freedom loving Indians Ian Frazier befriends, who live in New York or Los Angeles or Pine Ridge as the mood strikes them, are all men, and they don't have any children with them.

Ian Frazier knows all about the violent history of life on the Plains. He also knows that the legacy of violence lives on among contemporary Indians: "Especially in Western towns that border big reservations, stabbings and fights and car wrecks are a depressingly regular part of life." He seems, though, to regard the loss of life as a price worth paying for the freedom. He points out several times that none of the Indians he knows wears a seat belt, despite the frequency of accidents, and I take this as a symbol of the trade-off. Those willing to wrap themselves in safety gear may live longer, but they do not live free. Those with judges and prisons and police may be safer, but they live in the shadow of the state, never breathing the truly free air of a man like Red Cloud.

Like Ian Frazier, I admire the struggles of the Apache, the Seminole, and all the other tribes, and I think we should preserve the memory of the sacrifices they made for freedom. We should value freedom, and we should always think carefully before we trade some of this precious substance for safety or comfort. I share my love of freedom with many Americans, and I think that perhaps we learned some of our devotion from the Indians, whose way we admired even as we trampled them. But I wear a seat belt. It is, I find, a trivial burden, and it is a burden that saves a thousand lives a year and might well save mine. I also make an effort to be nice to everybody I meet, not just the ones I work for in my service-sector job, and I rarely even fantasize about telling people off. If you ask me, we could do with a lot less rudeness, not more. I have my misgivings about our swelling police and prison apparatus, but given the choice I would rather have it than nothing. Without such mechanisms it is all too easy to end up in a kill or be killed situation, and that repulses me. I lack many freedoms, but I am free to choose nonviolence, a choice no man of the Sioux or the Comanche ever had.

To live together in our cities and in our nations we must learn to get along with each other. You can choose to see this as a surrender of freedom, or you can choose to see it as a miraculous coming together of different kinds of people to build something greater than any one person or tribe could build. There are things in our crowded society no land of nomads could support, from Hollywood to Harvard. By curbing our tempers and our impulses and working together, we have sent men to the moon, built the Internet, decoded the genome. None of this can be done without sacrificing some freedom to do and speak as we please. You can take your teepee and head off in a huff when you don't get your way, or you can participate in the extraordinary project of human civilization. I think civilization is worth it. 

2006