Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) was a Japanese writer born into the era when Japan was obsessively struggling to catch up with the west. His education thus focused on European philosophy and literature. But he was, it seems, ambivalent about the experience. This is from one of his most famous works, A Fool's Life:
Twenty-nine years of human existence had offered him little illumination. But Voltaire at least equipped him with artificial wings.
Unfolding these man-made wings, easily he glided up into the sky. Bathed with reasons light, human joy and sorrow sank away beneath his eyes. Over squalid towns, letting irony and mockery fall, he soared into unobstructed space, heading straight for the sun. That with just such man-made wings, scorched by the sun's radiance an ancient Greek had hurtled into the sea, dead. He'd seemed to have forgotten. ….
Tyler Cowen's interview with ornithologist Richard Prim is interesting throughout. A sample:
COWEN: If you were trying to give us the most fundamental explanation of why sexual dimorphism is different in birds compared to mammals, what would that be?
PRUM: Well, that’s actually a really big question. [laughs]
COWEN: Of course, but the most fundamental factor — what is it?
PRUM: The most fundamental factor is that most birds don’t have a penis.
COWEN: Talk me through the equilibrium there.
. . . .
PRUM: Birds have a very rapid period of rapid development. That means that they grow up and leave the nest, and you need two parents to do that efficiently in most diets or most kinds of ecologies. That means the dad’s got to be at the nest.
We usually thought that you have social monogamy, at least two birds helping raise the young, because the young are so needy and they have to grow up quickly. But there’s another possibility, which is that they could evolve to be so needy and grow up quickly because they managed to get males at the nest.
One of the things that happened in the phylogeny of birds — you’ve got ostriches and their relatives, and you’ve got chickens and ducks, and then you’ve got the rest of birds, and that’s a bunch. That’s the vast majority of them, and in that lineage leading to the rest of birds, the penis evolved away, and the question is why. My own theory is that female birds preferred mates that did not have a penis.
One of the ancillary benefits of that, one of the correlated benefits of that is that they were no longer subject to sexual coercion or sexual violence. They could be coerced behaviorally, but they couldn’t be forcibly fertilized. That means that they have freedom of choice, and what do they do with their freedom of choice? They choose beauty. One of the reasons why birds are so beautiful is that males don’t have a penis. They have to be subject to choice in order to effect reproduction, and also they have to invest if females require it.
There are snakes in that part of the world, including European vipers, but there aren't very many and they are not especially important in the Sami cosmos. So why snakes? Could this have been brought from the Mediterranean world, along with pottery and farming? Fascinating.
One of the issues raised by Brexit was what to do about the boundary between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. During the Troubles, the IRA constantly attacked border posts, which became armed fortresses, and one of the most beautiful signs of the peace that followed the Good Friday Accords was the dismantling of those grim, concrete and barbed wire monstrosities. But the open border between the UK and the Irish Republic depended on both being in the EU. So when Britain announced it was leaving, many (including me) wondered, what would happen to that suddenly relevant border?
Last summer Boris Johnson announced a solution: rather than rebuilding the border between the two Irish nations, a new customs and trade boundary would be established between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This caused so much disruption that much of it had to be suspended on an "emergency" basis, and nobody thinks it is working very well, but the symbolic message was clear: Britain was ready and willing to jettison Northern Ireland if that was the price of its independence from the EU.
This has Susan McKay wondering how much longer Northern Ireland will endure:
Northern Ireland, created in 1921 when Britain carved six counties out of Ireland’s northeast, is not enjoying its centenary. Its most ardent upholders, the unionists who believe that the place they call “our wee country” is and must forever remain an intrinsic part of the United Kingdom, are in utter disarray. Their largest party has ousted two leaders within a matter of weeks, while an angry minority has taken to the streets waving flags and threatening violence. And the British government, in resolving Brexit, placed a new border in the Irish Sea. . . .
The writing is on the wall. While the process by which Ireland could become unified is complicated and fraught, one thing seems certain: There isn’t going to be a second centenary for Northern Ireland. It might not even last another decade. . . .
Northern Ireland now has borders with Britain and Ireland — and it is no longer a majority-Protestant state. The last census, in 2011, showed that the Protestant population had declined to 48 percent and the Catholic minority had risen to 45 percent. The Protestant community is aging, too: In 2011, only among those over 60 did it have a significant majority, and among schoolchildren, Catholics were the larger group. The results of a census to be published next year may well show an overall Catholic majority.
Nor can unionists count on the votes of Protestants. As a society, Northern Ireland has become more secular, more tolerant of diversity, less insular. People who reject conservative social policies have other voting options, and many young people do not vote at all. Some put their energy into global movements like climate justice and feminism — and plenty neither know nor care about the religious background of their friends.
From the 1920s to the 1990s, Unionism in the North was fed by the huge economic, educational and social disparities between the industrialized, Protestant area around Belfast and the vast stretches of rural poverty across Catholic Ireland. But like most old manufacturing cities, Belfast has fallen on hard times, while Ireland has both boomed economically and become much less conservatively Catholic. So, as McKay says, some of the disparities on which Unionist sentiment was founded have faded away, and many young people just don't understand what all the fuss was about.
When I was younger I believed that the arrangement of nations I saw on the map was permanent, and I scoffed at the notion that Germany would ever be reunited. The division of Ireland is no more permanent than the Berlin Wall turned out to be, and I would also not be surprised to see it disappear in my lifetime.
Sunday, June 27, 2021
Strasbourg remained a significant place through Merovingian and Carolingian times. In 842, amidst civil war among Charlemagne's three grandsons, the two younger brothers swore the Oaths of Strasbourg, promising to work together against their older brother Lothar. This is famous partly because Louis' men swore in proto-German, Charles' in proto-French, very important early texts in both languages. When the empire was partitioned, Strasbourg ended up in the portion of the older brother Lothar, for whom the region was called Lotharingia, from which the modern provincial name Lorraine derives.
The ruler of Strasbourg across the early Middle Ages was its bishop. There were at least two armed revolts against him, but he remained in charge down to 1262. In 1260 a new, very aristocratic bishop, Walter von Geroldseck, issued a Manifesto of Grievances against the townspeople, saying they were not respecting the bishop's authority or paying him all the taxes due to him. By then the booming town had a lot more money and men than the bishop, so their response was, "come and collect your taxes if you can." Walter called for help from his fellow lords and bishops and raised an army. It was a tense, roughly equal standoff until one of the lords who had come to help the bishop, Charles of Hapsburg, decided to switch sides and support the town. (Those wily Hapsburgs, at it again.)
Months of raiding eventually culminated in the Battle of Hausbergen. The bishop – he was the sort of bishop who commanded his own army, in full armor – thought he had caught the forces of the town at a disadvantage and ordered an immediate cavalry charge, but he was too far away and the townsmen had time to form up properly for defense. The bishop was killed and his men were so badly routed that the new bishop had to surrender all his claims over the town, which became an Imperial Free City.
The town was a key site in the early days of the Reformation, and in 1605 saw one of Europe's first daily newspapers. In 1681 it was conquered by the armies of Louis XIV, becoming part of France.
This morning, completely by chance, I read two NY Times articles in succession. The first is titled "Is this Railroad for the Rich?" and discusses the very strict zoning of many towns along the Long Island Railroad. It is illegal to build multi-family housing near any of the LIRR stations in Nassau County. In one town, Bellerose, it is illegal to build any new housing at all, since that "would be detrimental to the integrity of the village and to the health, safety and welfare of its residents." Any professional planner would say that around commuter rail stations is the perfect place for new apartments or condominiums, but the people of Nassau County don't want it and they have the power to stop it.
From there I clicked to an interesting article by Parul Sehgal titled "Consent." Consent, preferably verbal and explicit, was established a generation ago as the essential precursor to any sort of sex. But a raft of books has appeared over the past few years asking hard questions about this notion, which seems to be wholly inadequate to protecting people (and especially girls and young women) from harm. Some feminists have argued that sex can still be rape even when explicitly consented to, for example when men lie about being married. We have also been treated to scenes in the movies and on television in which creepy abusers bully girls into saying "yes" out loud, then using this as a cover for doing whatever they want.
It’s upon this shifting terrain that these new works are set. “I May Destroy You” is based on Coel’s experience of sexual assault, around which orbit other stories of ambiguous sexual encounters — “thefts of consent,” she calls them. . . . Annabel Lyon’s prizewinning novel “Consent” follows, in part, a woman disturbed to learn that her intellectually disabled sister wants to marry — is she capable of consent? In Shatara Michelle Ford’s film “Test Pattern,” the question of consent hinges not just on a woman’s assault by a stranger but on the putatively protective behavior of her partner afterward. The acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux took 60 years to piece together her latest memoir, “A Girl’s Story,” about the trauma of her first sexual experience, “because it was so complex.” “Had it been a rape, I might have been able to talk about it earlier, but I never thought about it that way,” she has said. “I gave in, so to speak, out of ignorance. I don’t even remember saying, ‘No.’”
Even more than these explorations of ambiguity, what struck me is that some thinkers are extending the notion of consent well beyond relationships between two people. If the two people involved have a major disparity of power – teacher and student, boss and employee – does consent mean anything? Should we, maybe, try to restructure our whole society in an anarchist direction, to minimize the extent to which people ever do things to which they would not wholeheartedly consent?
And then this:
What if it were acknowledged not just as a private transaction between individuals, but, as Milena Popova suggests in her study of the term, “Sexual Consent,” as something ever-present in our enmeshment with the world? Where is our consent in the water we drink or the air we breathe?
Setting aside the narrow if vital question of sex, I want to ask this: to what extent should we think about life as things to which we do or do not consent? When can things be forced on us without our consent? How much do we have to know, and how much control of a situation do we have to have, before we can meaningfully consent to anything? In what sort of mental states can we meaningfully consent, and might we rather often be so confused or bedazzled that the concept does not apply? When would the cost of saying no, for example to our employers, be so high that our choice is taken away from us?
We are watching this unfold across the world about Covid-19 vaccinations, with hundreds even of hospital employees refusing the shot and raising hell at the prospect of their bodily integrity being violated without their consent. And yes there are people who explicitly equate forced vaccination with rape.
In the words of the Hagakure, "this understanding extends to all things." The people of Nassau County do not consent to the building of apartment buildings near their homes, and if that means somebody else suffers, too bad; they believe absolutely that their homes should not be changed without their consent. Millions of people in the US and Europe feel this way about immigration: they have not consented to seeing their communities transformed by strangers, and they hate that this happened without anyone asking their opinion. As Matt Yglesias once put it, "change feels coercive."
How big a role can we grant to the pursuit of this kind of individual integrity, the refusal to do or endure anything we have not consented to? Some anarchists extend it very far indeed. I think that is simply unworkable, and that some decisions have to be made politically and enforced on everyone. But I think you can go a long way toward understanding modern politics by hearing people say, "I did not consent to this," and I think it would do us all good to reflect on what our own politics might entail forcing on others, and how we would feel if the same were done to us.