Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Socialism and Utopia

The first half of this article by Brett Heinz might be the most appealing description of socialism I have ever read. He focuses mainly on all the ways we already use government ownership and cooperative ownership to manage big parts of the economy:
Because of its Cold War connotations, most Americans think of socialism solely as inefficient and bureaucratic public ownership through a powerful central government. But actual public ownership need not be either centralized or wasteful. The state of North Dakota owns both a public bank and the nation’s largest flour mill, each providing reliable services to state residents while also being accountable to and returning their profits to the state government rather than to private shareholders. Indeed, in order to ensure that everyone had access to basic banking services, the U.S. ran a highly successful basic public banking program through the post office from 1911 to 1967 (139 countries still offer at least some financial services through their post office).

While private internet service providers ignore rural consumers and systematically overcharge the customers they do have, more than 500 cities across 40 states have established cable internet networks owned and operated by municipal governments, with great results: The municipal networks for Longmont, CO and Chattanooga, TN are both among the 10 fastest internet service providers in the nation.

As private utilities have been busy starting wildfires and poisoning rivers to protect their profits, 16 percent of Americans already get their electricity from public utilities (and another 13 percent from cooperatives). Nebraska, the only state to exclusively use public and cooperative energy utilities, has some of the cheapest and greenest energy in the country, and sends most of its excess revenue into state coffers. Every citizen can elect the members of their utility’s board and attend public meetings to provide direct input. In one of the most conservative states in the country, socialism is already thriving in one sector. . . .
All of which is true; there are lots of publicly owned enterprises in America and western Europe, and some of them are quite productive and efficient. We even have one publicly-owned football team, and it has an above-average record. I'm all for public ownership or cooperative ownership when it seems to work. When capitalists cry "Socialism!' at the sight of any government run or heavily regulated activity, I just shrug; the word holds no fear for me.

But then Heinz starts dreaming utopian dreams:
Democratic socialism means waking up in the morning without worrying about rent, making breakfast with ingredients you grew alongside your neighbors, and taking clean and free public transit for your short commute to the job where you and your co-workers elected your own management. It means having your share of the profits you help produce direct deposited into your local credit union, going on a long walk through your vibrant and diverse neighborhood in the late afternoon, watching a movie over high-speed public broadband, and then going to sleep in your warm bed without worrying about energy bills. You don’t have to call your insurance agency to argue over a deductible, you don’t have to have your allergies exacerbated by dirty air, and you won’t be stopped and arbitrarily questioned by an aggressively militarized police force. We know that this world is possible; the only matter now is to fight for it.
Why does democratic socialism mean not worrying about rent? Every public housing program I know of across the whole world charges rent. Soviet citizens all paid rent. If we don't pay rent, how would we build new housing or maintain what we have? If there are no utility bills, who pays for the solar farms and wind farms and high-voltage power lines? Who is going to upgrade all those old lines that spark fires? – because it is aging infrastructure, not perfidious capitalists, that makes the lines dangerous. Soviet citizens all paid to ride the subway, too. Why would cooperative firms mean shorter commutes? Without knowing anything about it I would be willing to bet that some of those North Dakotans who work at the state-owned flour mill have very long drives. Why is socialism going to improve policing, when all the police already work for the public? (Come to think of it, there's an excellent case of a situation where democratic control does not in itself solve the problem.) Why is socialism going to reduce allergies, when by far the most harmful allergen in the US is pollen? Are we going to create jobs by paying people to uproot all the ragweed plants? Why is it going to reduce air pollution? Publicly-owned firms have historically prioritized jobs over the environment, not the other way around. And spare me raising my own breakfast alongside my neighbors; I love to garden but grain farming is a job for agribusiness.

Heinz rants about big, hierarchical companies, which I absolutely agree can be as maddeningly bureaucratic as governments; but without huge, hierarchical companies, who is going to build airplanes? Without huge banks, who is going to provide the financing for state-of-the-art minimally polluting factories? Without stock markets or investment firms, where is the money going to come from for start-up companies? Small cooperatives are great at making butter and cheese, but some things just can't be done that way.

I would prefer a world with more publicly owned utilities and more cooperative businesses, and I would love to see a public option for health care. I would be happy to bring back government banking, I suppose this time on the Internet. But it is a fantasy to think that re-arranging ownership will solve the basic problems of modern life. Some of our problems reflect the basic technological and social structure of our civilization, and some of them, like the torture of trying to get any group of neighbors to agree on anything, are just part of life.

Despite Appearances, Racism is Still Declining

The reaction of many liberals to the Trump era has been to decry that racism is rising, becoming a terrible scourge again. But polls show that this is not so, and racism continues to decline slowly in both the US and Europe. The connection between racist sentiments and right-wing populism is complicated:
Empirically, there is little cross-national correlation between levels of racist or anti-immigrant sentiment and [right-wing] populist success. Swedes score extremely low on measures of racism and anti-immigrant views, yet the right-wing Sweden Democrats are the country’s third-largest party. The Irish and the Spanish, meanwhile, score relatively high on such measures, yet right-wing populism has not been particularly potent in either country. Populists have become more politically successful over time, but racist and anti-immigrant sentiments have actually decreased over time in Europe and the United States over the same period.
(One should note that right-wing populists have been very successful in Austria, which is among the most racist countries in Europe. But anyway the correlation is not very strong.)

I suppose one thing you can say about Trump's success is that while Americans may be less racist, they are still willing to vote for candidates who appeal for racist support. Maybe that means their anti-racism is shallow, but maybe it means they just don't care much about race one way or the other. Remember, Trump got more black votes than Romney, and the same share of those with strong views about racial differences.

Vladimir Tsisaryk

Ukrainian sculptor, born 1978, educated in Lviv, St. Petersburg, and Florence. Obviously very interested in the ancient Greeks. Lots of work at his web site, including monumental portraits that look too socialist-realist for me. But I love these. Above, Helios.




Jason and the Golden Fleece, perhaps betraying a misapprehension as to what a fleece is.

Chariot Race.


Monday, December 2, 2019

Teacher Effectiveness and Student Achievement

The Gates Foundation put up tens of millions for a major experiment in whether a focus on teacher effectiveness could boost student achievement. They enrolled three large school districts and four networks of charter schools. They got their measurement schemes in place, evaluated teachers, made interventions. They ran the program for five years. The result:
Overall, however, the initiative did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation.
This was especially true for low-income minority students, who did not benefit at all.

The smartest observers predicted this result, e.g., California Governor Jerry Brown:
“The question you have to ask yourself is, if teacher accountability is really the whole key, how can it be that from Comenius”—a 17th-century European pioneer in education—“through John Dewey and Horace Mann, and going back to the Greeks, every­body missed this secret, and we figured it out just now? I’m skeptical of that.”

Mikko Lagerstedt, Finnish Light

Young Finnish photographer. Lots more at his web site.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Everything is Plundered

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses –
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.

–Anna Akhmatova

The Genes of Viking-Age Iceland

Studies of the DNA of modern Icelanders show that they are a mix of Scandinavians and people from the British Isles, and also that the sources are skewed by sex:
Studies of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosomes from contemporary Icelanders indicate that 62% of their matrilineal ancestry stems from Scotland and Ireland and 75% of their patrilineal ancestry is Scandinavian
This matches up perfectly with the sagas, which are full of Irish slave women. But experience shows that studies based on modern DNA can be a faulty guide to the past, so this is not unimpeachable evidence about the actual settlement.

In 2018 Sunna Ebenesersdóttir and colleagues published 27 genomes of varying quality from Iceland, all dating to between 900 and 1150 AD. These included people who seemed to be entirely Norse, others who were entirely Celtic, and still others who were a mix of the two, generally confirming the picture from modern DNA. On the graph, squares are male and circles are female, solid color indicates pre-Christian migrants, shading is pre-Christian non-migrant, and fully open is post Christian. (Ireland converted to Christianity in AD 1000.)

More recently the Eurogenes blogger has taken a look at the five highest quality samples and got the results shown above. The big surprise here is the presence of people who look Swedish rather than Norwegian. I am not sure what to make of this, because the written sources having nothing to say about Swedish Vikings in Britain or Ireland. Does it represent movement back and forth between Sweden and Norway, so that some people who came to Ireland from Norway were ethnically Swedish? Or did news about the land to be had for the taking in Ireland reach noble families in Sweden and inspire some of them to load up a ship and make the voyage? Interesting either way.

Today's Place to Daydream about: Jodhpur

Jodhpur is a city of about a million people in Rajasthan, western India, famous for its wealth of monuments dating to the 15th through 19th centuries.

Four hundred feet above the city looms the great fort called Mehrangarh, built around 1459 by Rao Jodha, one of the many, many kings who ruled in this dry land. The name Rajasthan, Land of Kings, dates only to the nineteenth century; before that it was sometimes called Rajputana. This desert district was long fought over by rival empires in India, Afghanistan, and Persia, and became famous for the skill of its cavalrymen. In the 9th century one clan of horsemen, the Rajputs, conquered the region and founded an independent kingdom. They remained more or less independent for centuries but had the habit of dividing their lands among their many sons, who they fought each other. The land thus kept coming apart and being put back together by an impossible complex line of competing dynasties, all claiming descent from the same founders.

In the sixteenth century they came into conflict with the rising Mughal Empire and most of the rajas eventually submitted, although some of the more remote places continued to assert their independence. These days the Hindus and Sikhs of Rajasthan talk much about their resistance to Muslim invasion, but historians argue about how much the religious conflict mattered in the past. The kings of Rajasthan got along famously with the British, who mostly left them alone to rule their own principalities.

Jodhpur sits along the border between western Rajasthan, which is the Thar Desert, and less arid eastern Rajasthan, crossed by a couple of large rivers. The rainfall at Jodhpur is famously irregular, and in recent history has varied from 24 mm to 1178 mm in a year (0.9 to 46 inches).

On one side of Mehrangarh Fort is the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, 180 acres (72 hectares) of native vegetation and animals, with miles of hiking trails. But plan on going in early morning or evening -- this is the desert, remember, and it is very hot for most of the year.

The museum in the Mehrangarh fort is famous for its collection of Rajput art and artifacts, with an especially fine array of arms and armor. They display swords they say belonged to Akbar the Great and Tamerlane, and although I have my doubts the weapons are magnificent. That only scratches the surface of what they have, though; they have a whole museum just devoted to royal palanquins.

In this same general area is another famous monument, the Jaswant Thada. This crematorium was built Maharaja Sardar Singh of Jodhpur State in 1899 in memory of his father.

The old city is still surrounded by a great wall with seven gates. Within the walls is a warren of narrow streets that braver tourists love the explore and then write about it on their blogs.

This district is sometimes called the Blue City, for reasons you can see.

The city has long been famous for its handicrafts and has several markets where you can buy things made in these streets: clothes, shoes, jewelry, even reproductions of Akhbar's sword.

Seems like a wonderful place to explore.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Neolithic Burial Tomb from Brittany, 3500-3000 BC

Bryn Celli, Anglesey

You probably know that the Neolithic people of far western Europe buried their dead in large group tombs. After all some of them are very famous, like Maeshowe and Newgrange. However, all of those huge mounds were looted long ago and the bones scattered, so we actually don't know very much about the burials they once held. We usually can't tell how the skeletons were deposited, what sort of grave goods accompanied them, over what period of time each chamber was used, how the people were sorted into different groups, all the things we would like to know about Neolithic burial practice. After all those tombs were the greatest monuments of the age and took immense labor to build, so knowing how they were used would tell us much about what those people most valued.

This explains the excitement that has greeted the excavation of a Neolithic chamber tomb in Brittany. (French  report from INRAP here, English from The History Blog here.) This picture shows the overall layout of the tomb, which was excavated into soft chalk rock.

At least 50 people (based on the number of skulls) were buried in this underground chamber, in two layers; bottom layer is directly above, top layer above that.

The really interesting results will come with DNA and other scientific analysis of the bones. We may learn how closely these people were related, how many were foreigners, how healthy they were, what they ate, how many died by violence. But meanwhile we have this pictures of grave goods, some predator's canine tooth  pierced for stringing, and a necklace of limestone beads.

If the burials are a good indication, this society ought to have been much different from later European civilizations. These were communal tombs, apparently used by whole communities, with little evidence of a noble class. So far it seems that this really was a much less unequal society than what came later, and scientific study of enough burials might help prove that was the case.


And little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man’s thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills.

–Lord Dunsany

Friday, November 29, 2019

Joseph Chinard

Joseph Chinard (1756-1813) was a French sculptor who lived through the most tumultuous period of his country's history, and I am fascinated both by his art and the way he prospered through revolution and counter-revolution alike.

The Getty:
In a biography of Joseph Chinard read to the Academy of Lyon a year after his death, a local historian reported that the sculptor's first attempts at art were confections made for the local bakers and candymakers in Lyons. Whether this legend is true or not, it speaks to the qualities of intimacy, delicacy, and refinement for which Chinard's work was so admired. He received his first formal training at a free, government-supported art school in Lyon and later studied in a workshop. From 1784 to 1787 he worked in Rome, sending back to Lyon copies of antique works to fulfill commissions from the local bourgeoisie and nobility. During this period, he won the first prize in sculpture from the Accademia di San Luca, a rare accomplishment for a foreigner.
Above and top show an unfinished marble version of the sculpture that won him the prize, Perseus Freeing Andromeda, 1791.

And then of course came the Revolution. Such times:
In 1791 he departed again for Rome with various commissions, including candelabra bases for the merchant van Risambourg representing Apollo Trampling Superstition and Jupiter Striking Down Aristocracy. The terracotta models for these were seen as attacks on religion and led to his arrest in September 1792. Imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo, he was released and expelled from Rome in November. Back in Lyon Chinard received a hero's welcome; but, ironically, works he designed soon thereafter for his native city's Hôtel de Ville were perceived as counter-revolutionary. As a result he was denounced and imprisoned in October 1793. 
Portrait of an Unknown Revolutionary, 1795, now in the Met. The force of this work comes from portraying an anonymous, informal, hip, possibly radical young man with trendy hair in a severe classical style. Chinard is generally classed as a neoclassical sculptor, but a work like this shows a much more personal and immediate touch.

Despite having already been jailed by both sides and repeatedly denounced by partisans of both for secretly favoring the other, Chinard continued to thrive as an artist. Jailed by both sides, but also hired by both sides. (Portrait of an Unknown Woman, now in the Louvre.)

Chinard prospered under the Napoleonic regime and completed many fine busts of elite French men and women. I love this one, Vincent de Margnolas, 1809 - what a dandy.

Bust of Madme de Verninac as Diana, 1800-08.

A terracotta portrait of Madame de Recamier, whom Chinard sculpted several times. In the Getty.

General Joseph Piston, 1812.

So Chinard went on with his work, sculpting religious and classical scenes in Rome, young revolutionaries under the Convention, generals under Napoleon. Keep pushing on, as they say. (The Artist's Wife, 1803)