Monday, July 22, 2019

Renaissance Shipwreck in the Baltic Sea

A trading vessel from around 1500 AD has been found on the floor of the Baltic Sea, in remarkable condition.

Stills from a video at the Times.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Women's Voices have Gotten Deeper

Cecilia Pemberton at the University of South Australia studied the voices of two groups of Australian women aged 18–25 years. The researchers compared archival recordings of women talking in 1945 with more recent recordings taken in the early 1990s. The team found that the “fundamental frequency” had dropped by 23 Hz over five decades – from an average of 229 Hz (roughly an A# below middle C) to 206 Hz (roughly a G#). That’s a significant, audible difference.
Obviously this is just one study, but I it corresponds to what everyone I have asked thinks. Everyone I have asked has also offered the same reason: feminism and changes in power dynamics.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Mount Desert Isle Part III

Tidepooling at the culvert down the road from our house. This is an artistic photo taken by my elder daughter showing me and three other children.

Above, dead crab, live crab, and two live hermit crabs in a tiny area. We saw at least 25 hermit crabs.

 View from the top of Acadia Mountain this morning.

Small waterfall at the mouth of Man O War Brook, where generations of sailors filled their barrels with fresh water, including some from the British Navy.

One of the best things about Maine is the flowers.

Against Benevolent Dictators

Stephanie M. Rizio and Ahmed Skali:
Supposedly well-intentioned dictators are often cited as drivers of economic growth. We examine this claim in a panel of 133 countries from 1858 to 2010. Using annual data on economic growth, political regimes, and political leaders, we document a robust asymmetric pattern: growth-positive autocrats (autocrats whose countries experience larger-than-average growth) are found only as frequently as would be predicted by chance. In contrast, growth-negative autocrats are found significantly more frequently. Implementing regression discontinuity designs (RDD), we also examine local trends in the neighbourhood of the entry into power of growth-positive autocrats. We find that growth under supposedly growth-positive autocrats does not significantly differ from previous realizations of growth, suggesting that even the infrequent growth-positive autocrats largely “ride the wave” of previous success. On the other hand, our estimates reject the null hypothesis that growth-negative rulers have no effects. Taken together, our results cast serious doubt on the benevolent autocrat hypothesis.
Obviously this result is subject to all the qualifications we have talked about here before, like how to define democracy or measure economic growth through periods of regime change. But anyway these scholars found that dictators do on average worse than the regimes they overthrow.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Mount Desert Isle Part II: Sargent Mountain

First real hike, on Tuesday. View from halfway up.

And from the top.

Younger daughter on the summit.

 Various relatives.
Younger daughter with an amusing cairn.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Lawrence M. Principe, “The Secrets of Alchemy”

The Secrets of Alchemy (2013) is the best introduction to alchemy that I have read, and it includes some great stuff on the testing of alchemical recipes in modern labs. If you’re curious about alchemy, read it. Meanwhile, a short primer on this ancient and mysterious art:

In the ancient and medieval worlds, alchemy was not distinguished from any other sort of chemistry, and people we call alchemists did other sorts of chemical experiments. But the core of alchemy was the transmutation of metals, especially the transmutation of “base” metals such as lead or mercury into silver or gold. The central goal of alchemy was already established by the time our first surviving alchemical manuscript was written. That is On Apparatus and Furnaces by Zosimus of Panopolis in Roman Egypt, written around 300 AD. Zosimus was already drawing on an extensive previous literature, and he was engaged in debates with his contemporaries. (One of the authorities he cites is a woman named Maria, who gave her name to a method for heating compounds in water that evolved into the bain-marie of French cooking.) Anyway Zosimus gave instructions for methods used in transmutation, especially exposing one substance to vapors drawn from another substance. He described different kinds of transmuting agents, from simple agents that could only (in our terms) catalyze one reaction to the highest level, a substance that could transmute any metal into any other. That supreme reagent came to be called the Philosopher’s Stone. Most authorities did not think it was a literal stone, leading to it being called “the stone that is not a stone” and similar things.

The remarkable thing about alchemy, to me, is that serious, educated people kept on trying to transmute lead into gold down into the 1700s, but none of them ever succeeded. Why did people keep banging their heads against this lead wall for 1500 years?

First, because their theories of matter told them that it should be possible. You have probably heard of the most famous ancient theory of matter, the Four Elements of Empedocles. Empedocles taught that all matter was composed of earth, air, fire, and water. To this Aristotle added four characteristics: hot, cold, wet, and dry. There were other theories, but all of them agreed that all the materials we see around us are made up from differing proportions of a few simpler substances. Therefore it ought to be possible to transform any substance into any other. Not everyone agreed; alchemists were regularly attacked by other scholars who argued that the combination of elements to make up gold or silver had been done by God using powers that humans did not and could not possess. But that seemed to many of the more scientifically minded like special religious pleading, and the belief that any substance could be transmuted into any other remained widespread until modern chemistry was established after 1750. Using Aristotle’s schema, most authorities agreed that while lead and mercury were cold and wet, gold was much hotter and drier; therefore, for a thousand years the basic recipes of alchemy involved reacting the cold, wet base metal with something considered hotter and drier, such as sulfur or antimony.

Second, because the chemical manipulations alchemists could perform seemed to those who performed them at least as amazing as turning one metal into another. This is true on multiple levels. The chemistry itself was impressive, turning metals into white powders, red liquids, or crystal trees – that is, when it worked. Some of these reactions are fairly difficult even in a modern lab, and for people working with impure materials and shoddy equipment they could take years of effort. Principe describes trying to replicate one 16th-century recipe that involved an ore of antimony called stibnite. He could not make it work until he ordered stibnite from the same Eastern European region as that used by his source, whereupon the reaction worked perfectly, turning the gray ore into yellow glass. (The eastern European ore contained 2% quartz as an impurity.) You would have to multiply this a hundredfold for workers in medieval conditions. An alchemist who had labored for years to create one of the intermediate products on the way to the Stone and then finally succeeded would have his faith in the overall process dramatically revived. Plus, if it took five years to achieve the first or second step, then perhaps it seemed perfectly plausible that the last might take a lifetime.

Third, much of the alchemical literature was written in deliberately obscure ways. It is not clear how this started, since Zosimus was already doing it, but it remained part of the alchemical tradition down into the 1700s. Some of the tricks involved giving the materials nicknames, using metaphors for reactions (like marriage for mixing things together) and dispersing knowledge across a whole text or multiple texts, so that a metaphorical description of an action might be given in one chapter and the explanation of the metaphor given in another chapter or book. To the beginner, alchemical texts presented a fa├žade of extreme obscurity that might take years to master. Those who stuck with it were rewarded with membership in a club of real insiders, the magi who understood the obscure texts and used that knowledge to pry into the secrets of matter.

Fourth, and most mysterious, were the many eye-witness testimonies to successful transmutation. Some of these have the feel of folklore or friend-of-a-friend stories, including one about the Byzantine emperor’s storehouse of transmuting powders that goes back to an Arabic text of the 9th century. But others were written in the first person by scholars with reputations for great integrity. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), one of the creators of modern chemistry and a founder of the Royal Society, was convinced that transmutation was real by a mysterious stranger who visited him around 1680. Boyle’s notes refer to him only as “the Traveller.” This Traveller had a paper envelope containing grains of a coarse powder that looked like ground rubies. The Traveller put one grain of this substance into a crucible with mercury and heated it over a fire for 15 minutes. When the crucible had cooled enough for its contents to be handled, Boyle was shocked to discover that it contained, not mercury, but “a solid Body.” It felt, thought Boyle, heavier than the mercury they had started with, and when he tested it later it seemed to be gold.

Page from one of Isaac Newton's alchemical notebooks

Many such stories survive from the 16th and 17th centuries. What can they mean? If Boyle’s Traveller was a fraud, what was his goal? Boyle gave him no gold or silver, only mercury that was used up in the reaction. There were plenty of stories about men who said that given some small amount of gold they could multiply it and then absconded with the gold, but there also are many like Boyle’s in which a financial motive is hard to find. Could these stories, even Boyle’s, actually be instructive fictions; by not naming this “Traveller” is he telling us we have entered the realm of myth? That would be, I think, very unlikely for the hard-headed Boyle, whose most famous book is called The Sceptical Chemist. I am not at all sure what to make of these tales.

While scientists of the 1600s like Boyle and Newton were very interested in alchemy, that changed in the 1700s. You might think that learned opinion was turned against alchemy by scientific progress, but that is not really so; the alchemists had been driven out of chemistry decades before Lavoisier and others discovered the reality of chemical elements in the late 1700s. This parallels what happened with witchcraft, which was banished from British and French lawcourts by Enlightenment attitudes a century before the scientific revolution had born much fruit. Anyway the progress of chemistry after 1750 sealed the argument, keeping alchemy out of science for good. But not out of the civilization. People kept practicing alchemy across the 19th and into the 20th century, and for all I know they still do. More interesting is a dramatic shift in how alchemy was perceived. Beginning around 1850 people began to argue that alchemy had never really been about making gold, but was instead a spiritual practice focused on purifying the soul. This view drew strength from some of the metaphorical texts written by alchemists but does violence to their history: they really were trying to make gold, and only a few thought the state of the alchemist’s soul was relevant. But this new idea spread like wildfire through occult and spiritual circles, embraced by people like Arthur Waite (of the Tarot deck) and Carl Jung. From there interest in alchemy entered avant garde artistic circles such as the Surrealists, who made much use of alchemical concepts.

These moderns embraced alchemy because they were fascinated with transformation. Alchemy interested them as a language for speaking about transformation on many levels: of society, of the self, of the soul, of the civilization. And perhaps this fascination with dramatic change also explains part of why so many smart people devoted so much effort to mixing metals and reagents in crucibles and exposing lead to sulfurous vapors for so many long centuries

Monday, July 15, 2019

Mount Desert Isle 1: Wonderland

First day and half of vacation. I'm on Mount  Desert Isle, Maine, with four of my children and assorted other relatives. These pictures are from Wonderland, on the Atlantic.

Wild turkeys by the driveway.

Yesterday afternoon on Beech Mountain, our traditional first hike.

Moldboard Plows and Medieval Agriculture

(Author's note: this is so nerdy that I hesitated to post it when I wrote it last week, but, well, here it is. If you don't want too learn about manure management stop now.)

I was reading Peter Wells' Barbarians to Angels (2008), a book arguing that the early Middle Ages were anything but Dark, and he says this:
Of fundamental importance was the development of a new technology of agriculture — the moldboard plow — which vastly increased the efficiency of food production beyond anything in Roman times. This new technology meant that fewer people could produce larger harvests than was possible earlier, thereby releasing many former farmers to work in other, specialized, activities such as manufacturing, trade, and building. (11)

Other technological improvements also contributed to making food production more efficient. The development of the horse collar allowed this faster and stronger animal to replace oxen on some farms as the draft animal pulling the plow. The introduction of the three-field system increased agricultural yields. . . . These three changes — the moldboard plow, the horse collar, and the three-field system — enabled farmers to feel their communities at an unprecedented level of efficiency. (132)
I have been reading statements like these since I was in high school and I have long wondered how they could be true. Did the Roman empire really feed 60 million people with inferior plows and no crop rotation? Roman Gaul had at least as many inhabitants as the France of 1200 AD, and its towns were probably larger; how were all those people fed? Plus, the ancient Romans were obsessed with agriculture, which along with war and politics was the only suitable employment for a gentleman, and they left us a rich legacy of detailed treatises on how to manage an estate. Can the technically marvelous Romans, whose bridges still stand in the hundreds, really have been that ignorant about farming, the art they loved the most?

I looked into this problem several years ago but never had any reason to write about it, until Peter Wells inspired me to dive back in. If the experts on Roman agriculture are right, what Wells says, and what all the other textbooks that repeat the same line say, is nonsense. Roman agriculture was actually more intensive and productive than anything practiced in the Middle Ages, and in fact some authorities say the western Europeans did not exceed Roman productivity until after 1850. Here is a fairly typical sample of contemporary writing on Roman agriculture:
The best informed authorities have long acknowledged that Roman farming was both sophisticated and productive, with clear evidence that the ancients had anticipated the critical innovations most responsible for the modern agricultural revolution: seed selection; effective tillage; hoeing and harrowing to destroy weeds; crop rotations; the suppression of bare fallow; the rotation of legumes, whether for human consumption, fodder or green manure; irrigation, particularly of meadows and garden vegetables; artificial leys sown with leguminous fodder crops; housing of livestock; improved manure management; careful grazing management for range and pasture land; and, most decisively, as I have argued in a number of publications, ley farming or convertible husbandry, still the most effective system of intensive mixed farming. . . .

Within the highly urbanized and affluent heartland of the Roman empire, our sources and archaeological evidence present a coherent picture of market-oriented intensive mixed farming, viticulture, arboriculture and market gardening, comparable, and often superior, in its productivity and agronomic expertise to the best agricultural practice of England, the Low Countries, France (wine), and Northern Italy in the mid 19th century. GrecoRoman farmers supplied a large urban population equal to, if not significantly greater than, that of early 19th century Italy and Greece, with a diet rich, not just in cereals, but in meat, wine, olive oil, fish, condiments, fresh fruit and vegetables.
If you have read much about modern organic farming you have probably seen ancient Roman works on farming cited approvingly; one gardening book I read noted that using methods described by Columella (c 70 AD) organic vineyards can equal the yields of more "modern" operations, and in a more sustainable way.

There are two sources of confusion here. One is that the Romans lived around the Mediterranean, and all of their expertise concerned farming in that environment. Northern Europe was another world. Especially on the heavy clay soils that dominate around around the North Sea, very different farming methods were required to get good yields. Peter Wells is an expert on Northern Europe, and that is also the focus of most American textbooks. As near as I can tell the improvements they are writing about were things necessary to bring the agriculture of England, the Low Countries, northern Germany, and Denmark up to Mediterranean standards. In that environment these methods have been very successful, and by the 1600s the Netherlands may have surpassed Valencia or the Po Valley as the most productive farming region in Europe.

The other has to do with the different kinds of agriculture practiced in the Classical world, which have parallels wherever people farm. There were vast areas of the Mediterranean zone where people practiced low-intensity, fairly primitive agriculture. These were places without enough water, from either rainfall or irrigation, to sustain intensive farming, and where there were not urban markets or ports close enough to make commercial farming viable. In those regions people alternated wheat and bean crops with sheep grazing in a loose, long-rotation system, which is not very efficient. Really intensive farming was limited to places with enough water for year-round plant growth and nearby markets where the surplus could be sold. Yet even in remote places the Roman economy led to changes; under the Empire more and more dry wheat and sheep land was converted to olive groves, which we can tell from the vast proliferation of olive presses on Roman archaeological sites (above).

Until 19th-century farmers began fertilizing with guano mined from Pacific islands, intensive farming required manure. It could be practiced only where there was a sufficient density of animals and people to created the requisite dung. With enough water, dung and attention, yields per acre could be boosted ten- or twenty-fold. But that was expensive and could only be profitable where there were nearby markets. Traditional agriculture could therefore get into a virtuous cycle with urban populations: more people meant more dung and higher crop prices, which meant more effort could be put into intensive farming, supporting higher populations. This happened in ancient Egypt, Italy and other favored locations; during the Middle Ages it happened in the Low Countries and around Paris and London. Part of the increase in productivity noted by historians of northern Europe came, not from new methods, but from population increase and the rise of urban markets that made it profitable for farmers to work their land more intensively.

This also explains how some parts of the Classical world came to have such primitive agriculture in more recent times. Especially in Greece and Sicily 19th-century travelers marveled at the primitive farming methods they saw and rhapsodized about peasants whose lives had been unchanged since the dawn of time. The more astute puzzled over how ancient Athens or Syracuse could have been sustained that way. The real story is that in some areas that virtuous cycle was broken: the towns were sacked and abandoned, which tanked the markets and cut off the supply of night soil, so the farmers reverted to subsistence methods that required less investment of money and labor; without profitable work, many people moved away to more prosperous regions.

In conclusion, the history of agriculture is vastly more complex than anything your textbooks told you, which should make you question everything else your textbooks told you about technology, society, or economics.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Links 12 July 2019

Trump and Evangelical Christianity

Spitalfields Life at the 134th Italian Parade in Clerkenwell

Scott Alexander's review of Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, a book about the Soviet economy focusing on how central planning was supposed to work and why it didn't.

Anti-Wokeness on the Dirtbag Left.

Ross Douthat on Marianne Williamson. (And on the new Paganism more broadly here.)

Did slavery make white Americans better off?

The original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom has been declared a National Treasure of France.

Can an intellectual love America?

Two interviews with Eric Kaufman about his book Whiteshift, which says white nationalist politics is entirely about increased immigration: New Yorker, Tyler Cowen.

Website of the week: No Brash Festivity. For me a Tumblr like this is the best way to appreciate 20th-century art. There is no push to engage or understand, just a parade of images that grab you or don't, and if something intrigues you then just search for more somewhere else.

Tomorrow I'm heading off for a week in Maine, so don't expect much except pictures of scenery until I get back.

Inigo Montoya's Guide to Networking Success

Making the rounds on Tumblr.

Mrinalini Mukherjee

Big exhibit at the Met of work by Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949-2015). These are made from hemp rope using a technique something like macrame. Mukherjee has always insisted that
she wasn’t making folk art, or design, or fiber art, or female art. She was using a pre-modern medium to make up-to-date art, period.
Most of these seem to date to the 1980s.

Some of them have names that suggest folk Hinduism – this is "Forest King" – but Mukherjee always denied that they were religious.

Fascinating, and you certainly aren't likely to see anything else that looks remotely like it this week.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Are Americans Losing Interest in Our Past?

Baby boom-era Americans piled into their station wagons and visited historic sites in such record numbers in 1962 that the National Geographic Society sought to capture the trend in a huge, colorful volume it called America’s Historylands. The book’s cover featured the colonial capitol in Williamsburg, Virginia, and showed men and women dressed up in tricorn hats and white bonnets, making an organic connection to the founding of the nation. Americans loved the houses, public buildings and battlefields that told the story of the nation, and the book spent 500 pages explaining the extraordinary attraction of these settings for families on their weekend sojourns.

Now, while families gather to celebrate the nation’s founding and President Donald Trump seizes the moment to bask in the historic aura of the Lincoln Memorial, many of the landmarks where that history was really rooted seem to have lost their allure.

Colonial Williamsburg, for one, reportedly draws about half the number of visitors it attracted in the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War. Other iconic destinations also face flat or dwindling attendance; Civil War sites, once guaranteed to entrance the young, are among them. As a historical moment, Gettysburg will always be the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but the battle site happens to be at a 10-year low in numbers of visitors, and far below the levels it drew in the 1970s.

Even places that depict American ingenuity in a different way, such as by telling the story of flight, show signs of losing their claim on the imagination, with attendance at the National Air and Space Museum trending down over the last 10 years despite drawing far more foreign tourists than in previous decades.
Something else that Millennials are killing!

Seriously, interest in the old-school Patriotic version of American history is way down. Some people say that means we should put more emphasis on a woke version: women's rights, Civil Rights, slave rebellions, and so on. But actually people are not flocking to those sites either.

Is it because fewer people care about the past, or because people would rather experience it on video? Both?

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

We often overestimate our explanatory prowess, exhibiting an illusion of explanatory depth (IOED). In the IOED paradigm, participants initially rate their explanatory ability (Time 1) and then after writing out as complete of an explanation as they can, they rerated their ability (Time 2). People show a consistent drop from Time 1 to Time 2 in their reported understanding of such things as common artifacts, word meanings, and political issues. The IOED is one facet of a broader family of phenomena in which people make inaccurate self‐assessments, often being far more confident about their abilities than is warranted.
People especially overrate their own ability both with general knowledge of the kind the old used to foist on the young, but things are not always better in areas of technical expertise:
The relationship between expertise and overconfidence is not straightforward. It sometimes is associated with reductions in overconfidence and other times with increases.
People with technical knowledge, the authors note, may be especially reluctant to admit that they don't know.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Peter Wells, "Barbarians to Angels"

Peter Wells is one of the leading archaeologists of early medieval Europe, and in Barbarians to Angels (2008) he tried to sum up the main things he had learned over the course of his career. It's well written, short, and has some good material. Too bad it's wrong.

Wells is from the "there were no Dark Ages" school of history, and he devotes most of the book to showing you all the great stuff that was happening in Europe between 400 and 800 AD. Which is fair enough, I mean, lots of stuff did happen in Europe, including the growth of new towns across the north, the spread of some key technologies like moldboard plows and window glass, and the creation of the amazing artistic vision we call the Insular Style. I recognize that my preference for the stuff shown in this post over classical marble is a matter of taste, but you have to admit that this is an amazing breath of fresh air after a thousand years of satyrs chasing nymphs.

But there is also clear evidence of decline, from abandoned agricultural fields in Wales to a dramatic fall in the amount of airborne lead incorporated into glaciers in Greenland. Roman Portus, the huge port complex that supplied the city with grain, was destroyed and abandoned by 550; Rome itself shrank from around a million people under Augustus to perhaps 20,000 in 600. (Wells flat out ignores that collapse by ending his account of post-Imperial Rome in AD 450 when it was still a thriving city.)

Wells admits that the early Middle Ages were different from classical times. This is a very important point that I want to emphasize. Even though Wells thinks there was no overall decline in the population of Europe or its economic activity, he agrees that things had changed in important ways. The elite of northern Europe was no longer looking to the Mediterranean for its models of how to dress, act, or educate its children, but to a broad "barbarian" culture; Wells lists a dozen very similar royal burials from around 500 AD that stretch from France to the Crimea. These warrior kings did not simply replace the old Roman elite and go on as before; they radically changed what it meant to be a leader. No more studying Homer or learning rhetoric; instead they listened to heroic lays and practiced sword fighting.

Where I think Wells is silly is in his insistence that the changes taking place across Europe were in no sense a "decline." Take, for example, his account of post-Roman London. After around 270 AD the thriving provincial capital changed:
Beginning in the third century and continuing into the fourth, there is clear evidence for major changes in what people were doing in the city. Two changes are particularly evident, one involving the reuse of stone architectural elements, the other the deposition of soil over much of the formerly built-up urban area. . . .

Some large public structures built of stone were allowed to fall into disrepair, whereas others were carefully taken down, apparently for re-use of the stone elsewhere. Some of the stone was employed for building a new wall along the north bank of the Thames. (109)
Other stones from old public monuments were built into the houses of wealthy families.

And then there is the Dark Earth:
The third and fourth centuries at London are characterized by the widespread presence of dark humic soil, sometimes more than a yard thick, and with cultural debris (pottery, bones of butchered animals, glass fragments) mixed into it, covering occupational remains of earlier centuries. This material, known as dark earth, is not unique to London but has been identified at many urban sites all over northern Europe. . . . 
The dark earth is now thought to represent not abandonment but rather thriving activity — but activity of a very different character from that of the Roman urban centers. The dark earth has been found to contain remains of timber-framed, wattle-and-daub huts, along with sherds of pottery and metal ornaments datable to the late Roman period. These observations demonstrate that people who were living on the site were building their houses in the traditional British style rather than in the stone and cement fashion of elite and public Roman architecture. (111)
So what happened in London, and many other Roman towns across Europe, was that grand public buildings were abandoned or torn down and people built wattle and daub huts within their ruins. Now ask yourself: what does the build-up of three feet (1 m) of humus in 200 years tell you? It tells you that nobody, ever, during that whole period, hauled any trash outside the walls. All of it – animal bones, oyster shells, hearth ash, shit, demolished huts (wattle and daub structures last only a decade or two), and whatever else people and their animals produce, was just left to molder away right next to where people were living. Even Neolithic householders were more careful with their trash than that.

And what does Wells say about this?
To call these changes "decline", "collapse," or "abandonment" is to adopt a conservative Roman attitude toward change. (112)
If you object to a town full of people who never haul away their trash, you must be a conservative Roman.

That was probably too harsh, because Wells has put his finger on something important. Across much of Europe we find that Roman citizens, rather than defending the empire against barbarian invaders, welcomed them into their towns and handed over the local Roman officials to the Franks or the Goths for execution. There were also widespread revolts against Roman rule, notably the rising of the Bacaudae that raged for decades across western France. Roman patriotism was in short supply.

That was partly because the Roman empire was in a bad state. Our best source on this is Ammianus Marcellinus, whose narrative of the years from 353 to 378 is a sad catalog of civil wars, treason trials, corruption, incompetence, and more treason trails, culminating in the crushing Roman defeat by the Goths at Adrianople. After reading it my students are always amazed that the empire survived as long as it did. Reading about the way many in western Europe welcomed their new barbarian overlords makes me think that for many people the empire was no longer worth it: why keep paying taxes to a state that can't provide justice or defend its frontiers?

And if the empire wasn't worth it, maybe the rest of Roman civilization wasn't worth it, either? Why keep spending money on marble law courts where you didn't trust the judges, or marble statues of leaders you despise or can't name, or libraries full of books you can't read?

I do not think that such a shift in attitudes can explain everything that happened in western Europe in this period. As I said, I think there is strong evidence for real decline. But it does seem to me that many people just got tired of classical civilization and were ready for something new.


Bronze ornament depicting the Etruscan sun god Usil, who drove a chariot across the sky just like Helios or Sol. Dated to 500-475 BC. 8 inches tall (20 cm). In the Getty.

Gay Pride as Civil Religion

Scott Alexander attended San Francisco's Gay Pride Parade and came away thinking it was eerily reminiscent of both Easter parades in Guatemala and the 4th of July parades he attended as a child. This launched him into a long essay about civil religion and what our new civil religion might be:
I’m a pretty big believer in the theory of an American civil religion. For me, the important part of religion isn’t the part with gods, prophets, or an afterlife – Buddhism lacks gods, traditional Judaism doesn’t have much of an afterlife, and both get along just fine. It’s about a symbiosis between a society and an ideology. On the most basic level, it’s the answer to a series of questions. What is our group? Why are we better than the outgroup? Why is our social system legitimate?

For most of history, all religion was civil religion – if not of a state, then of a nation. Shinto for the Japanese, Judaism for the Israelites, Olympianism for the Greeks, Hinduism for the Indians. This was almost tautological; religion (along with language and government) was what defined group boundaries, divided the gradients of geography and genetics into separate peoples. A shared understanding of the world and shared rituals kept societies together. . . .
The old American civil religion is on the rocks, and conservatives are very worried about it:
Say it with me: patriotism is a great force uniting our country. Now liberals aren’t patriotic enough, so the country is falling apart. The old answers ring hollow. What is our group? America? Really? Why are we better than the outgroup? Because we have God and freedom and they are dirty commies? Say this and people will just start talking about how our freedom is a sham and Sweden is so much better. Why is our social system legitimate? Because the Constitution is amazing and George Washington was a hero? Everyone already knows the stock rebuttals to this. The problem isn’t just that the rebuttals are convincing. It’s that these answers have been dragged out of the cathedral of sacredness into the marketplace of open debate; questioning them isn’t taboo – and “taboo” is just the Tongan word for “sacred”. The Bay Area’s lack of civic rituals (so goes the argument) is both a cause and a symptom of a larger problem: the American civil religion has lost its sacredness. That means it can’t answer the questions of group identity, and that communities aren’t as unified as they should be.
But then consider the Gay Pride Parade and what it celebrates:
The parade itself hit all the requisite notes. Marching bands. Celebrities. Floats. Adorable children. Charitable organizations. The Governor drove by in his shiny black car. The Mayor, surrounded by adoring supporters. Public streetcars and sightseeing buses, festooned for the occasion. . . .
Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.
I would put it this way: Gay Pride has become a key ritual in the Civil Religion of liberals. I know some gay people are unhappy about how the day has been taken over by mainstream politicians and giant corporations and support for the police, but really it is a perfect way for liberals to celebrate our identity. And, you know, there are only so many ritual templates available to choose from, and a parade is both the most inclusive and communal ritual in our repertoire.

Things change. But other things stay remarkably the same, like our deep tribalism and love of celebrating identity together.