Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Murder of Sawantaeny, the Law of Feud, Haudenosaunee Politics, and the Blindness of Racial Thinking

In February 1722, two British thugs named John and Edmund Cartlidge crossed the frontier of settlement into the woods of what is now central Pennsylvania. They went to the cabin of a mixed-blood Indian named Sawantaeny, hoping to trade for furs. But they got drunk, there was a fight, and John Cartlidge killed Sawantaeny. This random bit of violence threw the colonial authorities into a panic. Although Sawantaeny was a shady character he was theoretically a citizien of the Haudenosaunee or Five Nations, and they had visions of a wave of Iroquois warriors descending on frontier settlements for revenge. They tossed Cartlidge in prison and put him on trial for murder.

This is a famous event because it was copiously documented, giving us a rare glimpse of life in the frontier zones of eighteenth-century North America. Beyond the agreed borders and the named settlements there were numerous characters like Sawantaeny and the Cartlidges, people not claimed by any settled community who lived by their wits in the mostly empty spaces opened up by epidemic disease and endemic warfare. Many were some kind of mixed blood: Iroquois/Shawnee, Delaware/Miami, French/Huron, Finnish/German, and so on. They delighted in crossing every sort of boundary and defying every sort of convention. This includes some of the Indians; as we will see, they also had a lot of cultural baggage that some were eager to escape from.

History professor Nicole Eustace is fascinated by this event. She has written a whole book about it (Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America), which I own but have not been able to finish because it is long, boring, and annoying. But now she has an op-ed in the NY Times summarizing her argument in a form short enough for us to deal with. Eustace doesn't much care about the murder. What fascinates her is the actions taken by the Iroquois leadership, which she thinks opens up a different Indigenous model of how to handle violent crime:

At a meeting in Philadelphia to try to resolve the crisis, Native diplomats explained to William Keith, the governor of Pennsylvania, that the Haudenosaunees expected Native practices to prevail in resolving the murder. One of those diplomats, Satcheechoe, a member of the Cayuga nation, presented the Haudenosaunees’ view. He demanded that the governor travel to Albany to join British and Haudenosaunee leaders there in working out a treaty between the two and to pay his respects in person to the Native representatives. Only a formal visit could satisfy Haudenosaunee protocols, which required the expression of formal condolences, participation in spiritual rituals of community renewal and the payment of trade goods as reparations.

Then Satcheechoe added a final explicit instruction to the governor: The Haudenosaunees, he said, “desire John Cartlidge may not die for this. They would not have him killed.” Governor Keith argued that “the laws of our great king” did not allow for setting a killer free, insisting that “such a man by our laws must die.” But Satcheechoe made the Native position clear: “One life is enough to be lost. There should not two die.”

In September of 1722, Governor Keith traveled to Albany to meet with the Haudenosaunees and delegations from the colonies of Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. Because all of the assembled were at peace with one another, Native leaders argued that it made no sense to pursue vengeance. Rather, a representative of the gathered members of what were then five confederated nations of Haudenosaunees explained, “we do in the name of all the Five Nations forgive the offense and desire you will likewise forgive it.” The Haudenosaunee representative asked that the Cartlidges “be released from prison and set at liberty.” Governor Keith responded that he would fulfill their request “in order to confirm the friendship that is so happily renewed and established by this treaty.”

All true.  

What’s distinctive about the Treaty of 1722 is the alternative approach it offered to creating a fair society, one in which people who commit crimes can later be reintegrated into the community — and one in which a crisis of violence can be resolved without inflicting further harm. The treaty provided a working model of restorative justice, demonstrating how communities of the victims and the perpetrators of a crime can come together to repair social relationships through economic, emotional and spiritual offerings. The story has applications today, demonstrating that criminal justice reforms that may sound radical now, as they are pursued by a wide range of community activists, researchers, educators, legislative reformers and progressive jurists, actually have a long American tradition.

Radical? I am not sure what the word means to Eustace, but I consider it the opposite of "traditional." And there is nothing more traditional in human life than the law of feuding. Which is what we are talking about here, the ancient tradition of weregild and blood money, paid by the killer or his kin to prevent violence from spiraling out of control. Governor Keith tried to keep the payments he made out of his official report (and the British press), which is indeed an interesting detail. Eustace thinks he did this because he didn't want to admit he had encountered a superior Native way of doing things. Actually he was covering his ass because in England feud was forbidden, and paying compensation for murder was explicitly illegal, because the English had all too much experience of how it worked. 

Feuding societies are violent societies. This is certainly true of the Iroquois; and also the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, and all the other Native warrior societies I know anything about. They survived as societies because they had ways of dealing with violence, as Eustace lays out, but they all had high murder rates. Eustace seems to think that the chiefs were acting in the service of some Native ideal of justice and community. Maybe they were, but they were also acting to enhance their own power and prestige. They cared not a fig for a drunken renegade like Sewantaeny, a man of no family and no honor. When they saw that his death scared the British authorities, they took advantage of that fear to get something they wanted.

Why, I ask, did the Five Nations chiefs not want Cartlidge to be executed? Well, what would they have gotten for that? Nothing. Instead they manipulated the situation to get wagonloads of English presents and a conference in which three colonial governors journeyed to their land and sat on the ground with them to treat for peace. They emerged from this with their power and status dramatically enhanced, all for forgiving a murder they didn't care about. As a side line they signed away their nonexistent rights to land they had never owned in Kentucky and Tennessee, and promised to return runaway slaves to their English owners. (Which they never did, so far as I know, but they did promise to do it.)

In less modern societies, leaders need to be seen wielding power. How do you know that is the king? Well, he is dressed like a king and acting like a king, doing kingly things. How did the Iroquois know somebody was a chief? Because he dressed and acted like one. And to them the most chiefly thing was to sit in conferences with other important men, giving long speeches to which the other important men listened attentively, arriving at agreements that were solemnified with days-long rites and extravagant promises of friendship. And lavish gifts. Most English and French leaders hated this, although a few got to like it, and the fact that English leaders didn't really want to be there made it all even more sweet for the Haudenosaunee chiefs. 

It is also relevant that in 1722 Haudenosaunee power was declining because a series of epidemics had ravaged their population. They gave up trying to get a piece of the fur trade action in Kentucky because they no longer had the men to continue that war. So the boost the chiefs got from this treaty was especially valuable to them at a time when they had fewer soldiers than they used to.

The treaty meeting of 1722 was not a clash between Indigenous and European models of justice. It was a clash between two modes known around the world, one of feud, in which the family and friends of the victim claim the right of revenge and the leadership usually acts to reach settlement, and one in which all power of retribution has been claimed by the state. Both can work, although I don't know of any feuding society that ever achieved the extremely low rates of violence seen in Victorian Britain or 20th-century Japan.

This makes Nicole Eustace's bad take on the Treaty of Albany a symptom of one of our age's worst intellectual sins: racial thinking. She wants to assign all violence and other bad things to Whites, and all peace and virtue to the Indigenous. Actually there have been few societies in history more violent than the Haudenosaunee. They genocided the Mahicans, the Hurons, and the Erie; they waged warfare as far from home as Wisconsin and the lower Mississippi; they fought numerous battles with the Cherokee and Catawba over control of the deerskin trade in Kentucky and Tennessee, carrying out murderous raids as far away as South Carolina. Notice the language of the chiefs, which divides people into those we are at war with and those with whom we have peace. In war, brutal violence; in peace, negotiation and agreement. The Iroquois got along well with the British because the two peoples respected each other as mighty warriors who maintained a high standard of "civilized" manners at home. Governor Keith readily reached a deal with the Haudenosaunee chiefs because they were so much alike.

I also divide up the world, but I don't do it on the basis of race or culture. To me, the most important distinction is the one between the powerful and the powerless. I mistrust all kings, wherever they are, whatever their color. To me the most important thing ever said about politics is "power corrupts." I mistrust everyone with power: Egyptian pharoahs and Roman senators, Chinese mandarins and Japanese samurai, prosecutors and police, English governors and Haudenosaunee chiefs.

Some people wouldn't want their daughters to marry a black or an Indian; I wouldn't want my daughter to marry a governor or a chief.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Is There a Dictator Trap? How about a Democracy Trap?

In the NY Times, Susan Shirk informs us that Xi Jinping as fallen into the "Dictator Trap":

President Xi Jinping’s first decade in power has been a study in hubris. He has purged political rivals and adopted heavy-handed policies that have imperiled China’s economy. He laid the groundwork for a crackdown in the Xinjiang region that drove Muslim citizens into thought reform camps and has alarmed and alienated neighbors with an aggressive foreign policy. . . .

Mr. Xi fell into the same trap that has ensnared dictators throughout history: He overreached. He has concentrated more power in his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, looming so completely over the country that he’s been called the “chairman of everything.”
Thinking about this I asked myself, is there a “dictator trap”? Is there something about being a dictator that forces, or strongly tempts, leaders into policies that are ultimately bad for the nation? Probably so, but is that more true of dictatorships than other governments?

You could certainly say that the desire to stay in power leads dictators to make bad choices, for example cracking down so hard on real or imagined opponents that you do real damage to the government and the economy (Stalin), or thinking that you need great military victories to stay in power (Napoleon, Hitler). Or encouraging corruption so as to enmesh the whole elite in your governing scheme (Putin). It can be a problem that dictators sometimes have the power to make dumb decisions with nobody to stop them, but then all governments sometimes make dumb decisions.

Changing directions: is there a Democracy Trap? Libertarians and small-government conservatives have long maintained that there is. They believe that democratic governments will inevitably try to make the voters happy by spending money, which they will get either by printing it or ruining the rich, destroying the economy and ultimately diminishing freedom. This is pretty much what happened with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the turmoil over on-again, off-again democracy in Thailand has a lot to do with a fear of Robin Hood populism.

Against this I would say that few democracies have actually done this, and that in fact democracies have a better record of economic management than other systems. 

A different kind of conservative thinks the problem with democracy is that most people are foolish, short-sighted, and dominated by fads, so over the long term foolish, short-sighted voters will remake a truly democratic state in their image. What the nation needs is not democracy but the guidance of wise leaders. This is, I suppose, the justification for the current Chinese state, and the main source of their legitimacy was that they were making the country better. Now that they are not obviously making the country better, they seem to be turning toward surveillance and police violence to stay in power.

One thing I would say with more confidence is that in our world, maintaining any sort of state that is not either a democracy or a harsh dictatorship seems to be very difficult. The only real sources of legitimacy seem to be democracy and force. So the Russian state has trended toward Putin's dictatorship, and the Chinese state has trended toward Xi's dictatorship. Without the need to get support from voters, Xi easily smashed the constitutional limits on personal power put into place by Deng, which were supposed to prevent a repeat of Mao's disastrous personal rule.

In that sense it is not Xi who has fallen into a Dictator Trap, but the Chinese state. Deng's arrangements were supposed to keep the state balanced between dictatorship and anarchic democracy, but it turned out to be an unstable point, always in danger of tipping toward one side or the other. 

I think Xi's consolidation of power will be bad for China. I have never been sure that democracy is a great option for China, so I have not been calling for radical reform of a system that really seemed to be benefitting most people. But Xi's turn toward grim despotism changes the equation. I expect the bad trend to continue, which worries me. Twenty years from now China will either have undergone some kind of revolution and become much more democratic, or it will be an awful place, perhaps exporting awfulness around through world through war or economic mayhem.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Religion, Sexual Abuse, and Politics in Poland

In Poland, young people are turning away from the Catholic Church (NY Times). No surprise, I guess, but still important. One factor is the worldwide abuse scandal, which is tainting the Church in Poland just like everywhere else. Another is creeping secularization as Poland becomes more like western Europe. But part is national politics; the Church is closely allied with the ruling Law and Justice Party, and people opposed to Law and Justice see the Church as too enmeshed in politics. This seems to be a perpetual danger in modern times. Churches can either dive into politics and thereby alienate a large number of people, or try to stay aloof and end up looking weak and irrelevant.

Law and Justice head Jaroslaw Kaczynski is also doing his part to drive young people out of the church. He has a habit of doubling down when faced with any sort of criticism, and when he was attacked for doing nothing about the abuse scandal and being too close to abusers, he did this:

When Kaczynski and other senior officials presided over the opening of a new canal in September, they were joined by Slawoj Leszek Glodz, a disgraced archbishop who in March 2021 was punished by the Vatican for negligence “in cases of sexual abuse committed by certain clergy against minors” and barred from preaching in his previous diocese. 

I found this bit particularly interesting: 

A big factor in the Polish church’s failure to tackle sexual abuse, according to Professor Kobylinski, is the legacy of Communist rule, during which accusations of rape and molestation against priests were routinely dismissed as fabrications spread by secret police agents dedicated to atheism. To defend itself against the state, he added, the church developed a “culture of omertà,” or silence.

I have written about this before, my sense that in hushing up its sins the Church was doing what any organization that sees itself as fighting a great and important battle would do. This was doubly true in Poland. In the cause of fighting for humanity against Stalinism and Russian domination, the rape of altar boys was swept away as nothing but a distraction. 

Not any more. One of the defining themes of the post-modern world, it seems to me, is that most people don't believe in any cause enough to think it justifies covering up crimes against individual people. Even in actual wars, we demand investigation of all potential war crimes and punishment of responsible soldiers from our own side. 

We are not like this because we don't believe in anything, but because of what we believe in. The right of individuals to safety and happiness *is* our cause, the thing we believe in most deeply, the thing we are willing to fight for. In pursuit of that goal we are willing to smash churches and anything else that gets in the way. Sometimes it seems that we have descended into pettiness, more worried about microaggressions than macropolitics. But for individual people, individual crimes like sex abuse can loom much larger than who owns the factories. Caring about people sometimes means setting the big picture aside and delving into the details.

Whether this can really make for a productive politics is, I think, an open question.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Rockwell Kent

Moonlight, Winter, 1940

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was both a painter and an adventurer in the mode of late colonialism, journeying to obscure corners of the world on voyages that were part scientific exploration, part spiritual quest, and part publicity stunt. Born in New York, he attended the Horace Mann school and Columbia, and he was trained by noted painters.

White Head, 1905

Monhegan Island, Winter, 1907

He did his first professional work in Maine, and his semi-modern landscapes were a hit in the galleries. In Maine he discovered that what he really loved was rugged, wild places, and he became a sort of mystic in the line of Thoreau and John Muir. He was also a political radical, an advocate for socialism, the independence of Puerto Rico, and numerous other causes.

Bear Glacier, Alaska, 1919

He lived for extended periods in Winona, Minnesota (1912–1913), Newfoundland (1914–15), Alaska (1918–19), Vermont (1919–1925), 

Azopardo River, Patagonia, 1922

Mountain Lake, Tierra del Fuego, 1923

Tierra del Fuego (1922–23), 

Ireland (1926), 

and Greenland (1929; 1931–32; 1934–35). 

View from Palmer Hill, 1946

Everywhere he went, he painted.

He also did a lot of woodblock prints; among his most famous works are illustrations he did for a 1930 edition of Moby Dick, above and below.

And Another Note on Aging Alone

Scott Siskind, from a post describing all the misery he has seen as a practicing psychiatrist:

A perfectly average patient will be a 70 year old woman who used to live somewhere else but who moved here a few years ago after her husband died in order to be closer to family. She has some medical condition or other that prevents her from driving or walking around much, and the family she wanted to be closer to have their own issues, so she has no friends within five hundred miles and never leaves her house except to go to doctors’ appointments. She has one son, who is in jail, and one daughter, who married a drug addict. She also has one grandchild, her only remaining joy in the world – but her drug-addict son-in-law uses access to him as a bargaining chip to make her give him money from her rapidly-dwindling retirement account so he can buy drugs. When she can’t cough up enough quickly enough, he bans her from visiting or talking to the grandchild, plus he tells the grandchild it’s her fault. Her retirement savings are rapidly running out and she has no idea what she will do when they’re gone. Probably end up on the street. Also, her dog just died.

If my patients were to read the above paragraph, there are a handful who would sue me for breach of confidentiality, assuming I had just written down their medical history and gotten a couple of details like the number of children wrong. I didn’t. This is a type.

Aging Alone

As the generations that married less and divorced more enter old age, many more Americans are growing old alone. In the NY Times, Dana Goldstein and Robert Gebeloff take a look at what this is going to mean:

In 1960, just 13 percent of American households had a single occupant. But that figure has risen steadily, and today it is approaching 30 percent. For households headed by someone 50 or older, that figure is 36 percent.

Nearly 26 million Americans 50 or older now live alone, up from 15 million in 2000. Older people have always been more likely than others to live by themselves, and now that age group — baby boomers and Gen Xers — makes up a bigger share of the population than at any time in the nation’s history.

This is of course mostly what people have chosen, and no doubt some people will do just fine. But there is a shipload of data showing that single people live significantly shorter lives than those with partners, and also that they are lonelier and less happy. 

(I have noticed that the one demographic fact all of the men I used to play basketball with seemed to know was that single men live five fewer years than married men; I suspect some of them recite this to themselves when their wives are making them crazy.)

Compounding the challenge of living solo, a growing share of older adults — about 1 in 6 Americans 55 and older — do not have children, raising questions about how elder care will be managed in the coming decades.
Yeah, this is another major factor, especially in terms of loneliness. The Times cites a couple of childless people who reguarly run errands or do small repairs for their parents and wonder who will do the same for them.

There is also a weird real estate angle:

Living solo in homes with three or more bedrooms sounds like a luxury but, experts said, it is a trend driven less by personal choice than by the nation’s limited housing supply. Because of zoning and construction limitations in many cities and towns, there is a nationwide shortage of homes below 1,400 square feet, which has driven up the cost of the smaller units that do exist, according to research from Freddie Mac.

Forty years ago, units of less than 1,400 square feet made up about 40 percent of all new home construction; today, just 7 percent of new builds are smaller homes, despite the fact that the number of single-person households has surged.

As the article notes, one bedroom condos in many cities cost more than older 3-bedroom houses. This is something that really bothers me. Why, with household size falling rapidly, does the median home size keep rising? Some of it is zoning, which in turn is largely driven by the economics of funding local government with property taxes. Poor people living in apartments cost cities and counties more than they pay in taxes, so some jurisdictions have tried to zone them out. A few counties have even tried to ban townhouses. But some of it is our weird misunderstanding of what will make us happy, which drives some people to want bigger houses than they need. Big houses do not make people happy, but neighbors might help.

One thing completely missing from this article is retirement communities, either designated as such or just condominium buildings taken over by retirees. I think more people who can afford it should take this route; a friend of mine who used to work for a company that owned many such communities said she was always meeting people who said, "I wish we had moved in sooner! We hung onto our house as long as we could but we would have been happier here." Of course those are the extroverted people who want to talk to reps from the company that owns their development, but I think they speak for many. We cling to independence, but what we need is community.

I have a fantasy, which I never mentioned to anyone until I discovered that other people also have it. Having become magically wealthy, what I do is rent a Scottish or French castle for a whole year and invite all of my friends to visit for as long as they want. I have had this fantasy for long enough to have figured out all the ways it might go wrong, and why it would almost certainly fall short of my imagination. But my imaginary castle of socialization still shimmers in the mist for me, a glimpse of the sort of togetherness I dream about.

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion

As Louisiana erodes into the sea at a rate of about an acre every two hours, people have been geting to work on how to save it. These efforts received a huge shot in the arm from the settlement of the BP oil spill, which cost the company $20 billion, much of which has been allocated for coastal restoration efforts of various kinds.

Everyone understands the root of the problem. Southern Louisiana was built by the Mississippi River, which used to flood across all these lands every year, dumping millions of tons of silt. But as the Mississippi was confined within levees and the flooding controlled, the silt stopped coming, and the sea began to take it all away.

Map from Louisiana's Coastal Restoration Plan; the green areas places where new land is to be built

The solution is what are called "diversions." This means cutting channels through the levees and allowing the flooding river to flow back into the marshes. The first diversion was actually completed in 1991, and even though it was designed to lower the salinity of nearby marshes, rather than build land, it has in fact built new land. In a region where dozens of place names had to be removed from maps when they disappeared into the sea, the diversion is now building new places, including a channel dubbed Bayou Bonjour:

Bayou Bonjour debouched into a steaming marsh indistinguishable from thousands of others in southern Louisiana. Suspended in the shallow water were what botanists call S.A.V., or submerged aquatic vegetation, that took the form of green Mardi Gras wigs, tattered velvet, elephantine dill. The roots trap sediment like weirs. The mud clots until it surfaces as islets. The virgin land sprouts exclamatory tufts of giant cut-grass, named for its razor-edged leaves, which draw blood. Saplings colonize the accreting land, led by black willow, which shoot up 30 feet within a few years. “I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams imagined that there’d be a forest here,” Lopez said. But a forest stood before him. It stood at the edge of the marsh, on land that 15 years ago was the open water of Big Mar pond. The Caernarvon diversion has created more than 800 solid acres in Big Mar alone.

New land at Bayou Bonjour

But that was just a sideshow compared to what is planned now. The first BP-funded mega-diversions are planned for Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, one on each side of the river. The 5,000-page final environmental impact statement for the one on the west side, the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, has just been published by the Corps of Engineers, which means that construction may go forward within a year or so.

These will be huge channels, capable of carrying more water than the Hudson River. As to what will happen when they are opened, nobody knows. But projections show first, an ecological castrophe as the plants and animals of the brackish marsh are drowned in fresh water and silt, and then land building in the bay with ecological recovery to the south, along the new boundary between land and sea.

They will probably help save Louisiana from washing away. But they are just a first step, and the steps looming in the future will be harder. These two diversions will exhaust Louisiana's share of the BP money, which means that future diversions will have to be paid for by taxpayers. Plus, these diversions are politically the least controversial, because they mostly avoid displacing people. Future diversions may wipe out whole neighborhoods.

But as I said when I wrote about this two years ago, we can either do things like this, or watch the whole Cajun country wash away.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Gender Reveal

Neal Stephenson, "Fall" (2019)

So just suppose we really figure out how to scan dying people's brains so they can live again in a digital world. What would that be like?

In Fall: or, Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson approaches this question from several angles, which is the sort of thing you can do when all your books are 800 pages long. The story begins in the near future, with the death of billionaire videogame company founder Dodge Forthrast. It turns out that many years ago, apparently without thinking very hard about it, he signed a contract with a group that planned to put bodies in cryofreeze for future revivification. But that entity went bankrupt, and anyway the contract said that the preservation should be done with the "best available" preservation technique. After a legal struggle, it is decided that the best available preservation technique is to scan Dodge's brain with an electron beam, recording all the connections between his neurons. The vast file containing this data is stored on a computer at the Forthrast Family Foundation, where nobody knows what to do with it.

Then, 15 years or so later, Doge's grandniece crosses a strange America divided between civilized cities and rural areas where civilization is collapsing because of conspiracy theories run amok. This was actually my favorite part of the book, although it is short and not relevant to the main story. Then the niece, working as an intern at the foundation, decides to "flip the switch" and activate Dodge's brain.

This action will be controversial forever after, but what is done is done. Dodge comes to life, or a sort of life, alone, in a world of chaos. He has only vague memories of his previous existence, and as he brings a world into being around him, he draws on his half remembered time on earth. Starting from a single red leaf, he slowly creates a continent. 

From there we enter the realm of myth: a bit of Genesis, some Titanomachy, a hint of Ragnarok. A world takes form in a digital space, and as more and more people are scanned, it has more and more inhabitants. To the disappointment of many who are watching from meatspace, the world becomes depressingly like our own, with a ruling class, race slavery, the punishment of heresy, murder, war, etc. Billionaires are able to launch their avatars with extra resources, ensuring themselves leadership spots.  

In the final section the world is dominated by a vengeful god (a former billionaire) with an army of angels and another of human slaves, and a plot is hatched at the Forthrast Foundation to somehow overthrow him. Then the story switches into another sort of mode, as a group of Characters embark on a Quest, almost a parody of Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft.

Fall is a puzzling book. It is extremely inventive and the writing is good, but everything about the digital world and its inhabitants disturbed me. I kept thinking, why that? Why not something totally different? And, the thing that bothered me the most: without your memories, are you really you?

No answers are given as to many details, but I suppose if Stephenson had explored questions like "Why only one continent? Why didn't someone else make another one?" the book would have been even longer. He does have an answer to one of the biggest questions, why the digital world has to end up something like our own: because we made it, and that is the only world we know how to make.

So, some questions: 

Would you like to live another life as a digital avatar?

Would you want your digital avatar to live in an earthlike world, with gravity, land, sea, and sky, with plants and animals and food and work and sex? Or would you want something completely different?

Can you imagine something completely different?

If, instead of a life in an artificial world, the system just made you feel blissfully happy, would that be better? What would your blissful happiness be like?

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Links 24 November 2022

Historic building in Hattfjelldal municipality, Norland, Norway, said to date to the 1700s

Kaddish for a Jewish Thanksgiving, by an old family friend.

Is this a portrait of Shakespeare?

New book on the mitochondrial DNA lineages of Ashkenazic Jews finds that "both Israelites and converts to Judaism from a variety of gentile groups made lasting contributions to the Ashkenazic maternal gene pool." This agrees with another recent study that found the population most like Ashkenazic Jews is the Maltese, that is, a Syrian/Palestinian base overlaid with a little bit of everything else.

Ben Pentreath visits Italy to look at reclaimed building materials. So much wonderful old stone, tile, and more, plus great photographs of Turin.

The complexity of the domestic cat's migration into Europe. Domestic cats are not securely attested in Western Europe until the Roman period, but there are now signs of genes from Middle Eastern wildcats – the wild progenitors of all domestic cats – in the Neolithic and perhaps even earlier. Did semi-domesticated Middle Eastern cats spread on their own, trailing in the wake of grain-growing humans? Or were a few cats kept in Europe long before the first evidence of cat burials and the like?

Medieval bone flute found in England. Music is ancient: flutes go back at least 40,000 years, rhythm instruments just as far. Flutes could be made from bird bones or reeds by anyone with a good ear, so they were practically free and were very common across the world. Our amazing vocal apparatus probably evolved for speech, but maybe singing and whistling were also part of our earliest humanity.

Meat and the culture wars. Nebraska's new Republican governor promises a war against plant based products calling themselves "meat" or "milk", and that wonderful fountain of nonsense Marjorie Taylor Greene "once warned that the government was going to surveil and 'zap' people who eat cheeseburgers." The point I guess is that since most Americans eat meat, turning meat eating into a culture war topic would help Republicans.

Caroline Ellison, the CEO of Alamdea Research and the sometimes lover of FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, ran a Tumblr for years on which she extolled the virtues of polyamory in a mode she called "Chinese harem," with a strict hierarchy and the tops always getting their way. There is a rumor that the leadership of FTX all lived together as a polycule.

The NY Times is running yet another version of the massive teacher resignation story we've been reading since the beginning of the pandemic. As Kevin Drum points out, all of this is simply false. There has been no significant change in the number of teachers quitting. There may be some local teacher shortages, but that is perfectly normal; there are teacher shortages somewhere in America every year. 

AI may be ready to take over comic book art.

Women now outnumber men at the New York Philharmonic. (NY Times) To me one of the clearest proofs of the psychological power of sexism was that switching to blind auditions greatly increased the number of women chosen to play in orchestras.

Irritating essay arguing that the main debate in America is not between right and left, but between people who think our main institutions are ok and "brokenists" who think they are ruined and need replacing. But, you know, replace them with what? If you really did tear stuff down, when it comes to rebuilding you would be right back to the same political divisions again, since the author says Elon Musk and Bernie Sanders are both "brokenists" and they are unlikely to agree on a new institutional framework. I suppose I am an anti-brokenist because I think you should never tear down an institution that is functioning even minimally until you have good reason to believe you have something better to replace it.

AI can now beat good human players at Diplomacy. They're learning to lie to us and manipulate us.

Tyler Cowen's list of the best nonfiction books of 2022.

Apropos of the FTX crash, Rebecca Jennings asks, "Why do we keep believing things that are too good to be true?" I ask, who is "we"?

Vox piece on Hakeem Jeffries, the likely next leader of House Democrats. Besides being black, his profile sound exactly like most other legislative leaders since legislatures were invented: a strong Democrat who supports the main Progressive things, maintaining credibility within his faction, but also a deal maker willing to reach across the aisle.

Ukraine Links

Short video showing the intensity of shelling in Bakhmut.

Russian attack on Berestove using incendiary ammunition, short video.

An optimist lays out his scenario for Ukrainian victory.

A Kazakh confectioner runs an ad  in which a Russian fleeing mobilization crosses the border and is greeted with one of their chocolate bars: "This is the taste of freedom."

Discussion in the Russian press about changing the name of Volgograd back to "Stalingrad." "When life is hard, you go back to where you are strong."

Rumi, "Like This"

If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual desire
will look, lift your face
and say,
Like this.

When someone praises the gracefulness
night, climb up on the roof
and dance and say,
Like this.

When anyone asks about the beauty of angels,
or how the most expensive perfume would smell,
lean your head in close.
Like this.

When someone quotes the old poem
about clouds uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.
Like this.

If someone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.
Like this. Like this.

When someone asks what it means
to "die for love," point

The soul sometimes leaves the body, then returns.
If anyone doesn’t believe that,
Leave my house and walk back in.
Like this.

When lovers moan,
they’re telling our story.
Like this.

I am a sky where angels live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
while the breeze tells a secret.
Like this.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Meanwhile in Cambridge

From a speech in the House of Lords, via Marginal Revolutions:

Lord Triesman: I will tell the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that at Cambridge University, after the faculty of economics was redecorated, I was inveigled into taking part in a debate as to the order in which the portraits of its Nobel prize winners should be rehung and whether it should be Marshall or Keynes in the pre-eminent position. I left that debate after eight hours. No one was an inch further down the line of resolving it and, to my knowledge, the portraits have never been hung, because 20 years later no one is any further down the path of resolving it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Fatal Police Shootings Still Declining in the US

Of unarmed suspects, anyway. Charts from Kevin Drum, based on the Washington Post's program for tracking all police shootings.

Back Pain and the Mind-Body Problem

From the NY Times, here's another testimonial to the curative power of John Sarno's psychological approach to back pain:

For more than a decade, I had a near-constant throbbing in my left piriformis, a small muscle deep in the butt. I tried treating it with physical therapy, ultrasound and Botox injections. At one point, I even considered surgery to cut the muscle in half in order to decompress the sciatic nerve that runs underneath.

Then, in 2011, I picked up a library copy of the 1991 best seller “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection.” It claimed that, in order to distract the sufferer from repressed anxiety, anger or feelings of inferiority, the brain creates pain in the neck, shoulders, back and butt by decreasing blood flow to the muscles and nerves.

The book’s author, Dr. John Sarno, was a rehabilitation physician at New York University and something of an evangelist, touting a methodology bolstered by anecdotes from his practice and passionate testimonials from patients like Howard Stern or Larry David, who described his recovery from back pain as “the closest thing that I’ve ever had in my life to a religious experience.”

According to Dr. Sarno, nearly all chronic pain is caused by repressed emotions. By undergoing psychotherapy or journaling about them, he said, you could drag them out of your unconscious — and cure yourself without drugs, surgery or special exercises. I chose journaling and began writing pages-long lists of everything I was angry, insecure or worried about.

I appreciated the tidy logic of Dr. Sarno’s theory: emotional pain causes physical pain. And I liked the reassurance it gave me that even though my pain didn’t stem from a wonky gait or my sleeping position, it was real. I didn’t like that no one in the medical community seemed to side with Dr. Sarno, or that he had no studies to back up his program.

But I couldn’t deny it worked for me. After exorcising a diary’s worth of negative feelings over four months, I was — in spite of my incredulousness — cured.

Of course this doesn't mean Sarno's method really cured our author; believing that if you get better, the last thing you tried must have cured you, is medieval medical thinking. Sometimes chronic conditions get better on their own.

But then this is equally true of surgery. As I have mentioned here before, I have two acquaintances who swear that disk repair surgery magically cured them from years of terrible back pain. But since large-scale studies show that, on average, disk repair surgery does little good, who knows?

Back pain is really complicated. It is much more common among people who have experienced a trauma in their lives like divorce or job loss. It is more common in economically depressed areas. And yet it strikes some happy people whose lives seem as good as anyone else's. It is, as some people say, a "bio-social-psychological" condition.

But to deny that pain has a psychological component, to believe that even mentioning psychological factors is some kind of insult, is unhelpful. Our brains are part of our bodies, exquisitely connected to every other part of us, bound together in ways that sometimes mystify us but are very much real.

Monday, November 21, 2022

"Ancient Apocalypse" and the Question of Truth

Why do we care about the truth?

Ok, some kinds of truth are useful; the germ theory of disease is better than the humoral theory because it allows us to cure more diseases. Newton's model of the solar system is better than Ptolemy's in that it allows us to send probes to other planets and walk on the moon.

But what about our knowledge of the past? Why do we care what really happened? Would it perhaps be better if we just believed about the past whatever makes us happy in the present, or makes our politics go more smoothly?

Netflix is running a series now called "Ancient Apocalypse" focusing on the work of Graham Hancock. Hancock has been a thorn in the side of academic archaeology for 30 years, writing book after book in which he attacks "mainstream" science for ignorning evidence it does not like and lying to people about the past for nefarious reasons. (Brief discussion of Hancock's work here.)

Hancock thinks there was a great human civilization in the Ice Age. Sometimes he says it was on Atlantis, while at other times he has been cagey about where it might have been. These people were spiritually more advanced than we are, and lived all the time, or whenever they wanted to, in a state of bliss. They were destroyed by some cataclysm – lately he has been focused on the comet impact that some scientists think caused the Younger Dryas cold snap 12,900 years ago. But before they disappeared our wise ancestors sent agents across the world who passed their wisdom to many peoples, and we can relearn that wisdom by studying ancient myths from around the world.

The evidence for any of this is, let us say, thin.

But Hancock doesn't believe it because of scientific or linguistic evidence. He believes it for spiritual reasons, as an act of faith. Hancock has admitted that he spends most of his time stoned, and this explains much of his writing style. His approach to evidence is, well, drug-addled. But he doesn't really care about evidence. All he cares about in the whole universe is his faith that humans once had Enlightenment, lost it, and can recover it if we try hard enough. 

To me the weirdest part of Hancock's schtick is his attitude toward archaeologists. If we are hiding evidence of a great and spiritually advanced civilization, why are we doing that? To the extent that he ever gives an answer, it's the old Gnostic dualism. Archaeologists are working for the evil demiurge – the System, the Corporation, the Government, the Illuminati – that is determined to keep humanity as miserable slaves.

If I could persuade Graham Hancock that this is all nonsense, should I? What if that would strip his life of all meaning and make him miserable?

A Zen Buddhist would say, absolutely, Enlightenment can only come from ruthlessly confronting the Truth. A devout Christian or Muslim would agree would agree for different reasons. So, I suppose, would a Dawkins-style New Atheist.

But what is a highly uncertain deistic agnostic supposed to think?

What if there were some lie we could spread that would make the world better without damaging our scientific progress or justifying authoritarian governments. Like, say, that racism is a Satanic plot spread by the Illuminati to divide humanity and help them rule it, dreamed up at a sinister conclave held in 1357 at a now-destroyed Bavarian castle at which Satan personally presided. You can still see his footprint in the rubble.

Ok, it probably wouldn't work; but what if it did?

Serious people used to justify the way we taught American history to elementary school students by saying that, sure, George Washington never cut down a cherry tree or threw a silver dollar across the Potomac, but if believing such things shapes young minds toward patriotism, then it is worth it. We need them to love their country, because otherwise we can't have democracy or win wars. And some serious people now say that the collapse of naive patriotism in the 1960s greatly weakened the US military in Vietnam.

Don't focus on those specific cases, they are just examples of a huge class of claims about patriotism you see all over the world. How about we consider the opposite, a lie that we would probably agree is dangerous. For example, that the whole African continent was illiterate until European colonialism. Or in the opposite direction, that slave owners were cannibals who raised slaves for human meat. Don't laugh, this is believed by thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, and regularly makes the rounds on Twitter and TikTok. I think myths like these have a bad impact by further deepening racial mistrust. I think that debunking such myths serves a political purpose.

So could there maybe be lies that, if believed, would do the opposite? You can say, you can't do that, you can't just make up a lie and get people to believe it, the truth will out; but I think history proves you wrong.

I used to be a fanatic for the truth. In science, and in personal life, I believed that an honest commitment to truth-telling was the root of everything good. I am now convinced that in personal life, shading the truth is sometimes the only humane thing to do. What about in history?

For me this just doesn't come up, because my thrill is in learning about the past, in trying to figure out what it was really like. I try to be ruthless in my pursuit of the truth, at least in history, because that is what I like doing. The past is cooler and weirder than I could ever imagine, anyway. Once I would have said with certainly that my way is better than Graham Hancock's, but now I have lost that certainty, and wonder.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Franz Kafka, Aphorisms

And you thought the stories were strange:

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial vessels dry; this is repeated over and over; eventually it can be calculated in advance and becomes part of the ceremony.

The expulsion from Paradise is in its principal aspect eternal: and so, although the expulsion from Paradise is definitive, and life in the world inescapable, the very eternity of the process nevertheless makes it possible not only that we could remain in Paradise forever but that we are indeed there forever, whether we know it here or not.

They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. In the manner of children, they all wanted to be couriers. And so there are only couriers. They rush through the world and, as there are no kings, they shout their meaningless messages to one another.

Belief in progress doesn’t mean belief that progress has already been made. That would not be belief.

Many shades of the departed are occupied solely with lapping at the waters of the river of death because it comes from us and still bears the salty tang of our seas. Then the river writhes in revulsion, its current flowing backwards, washing the dead back into life. But they are happy, sing hymns of thanksgiving, and caress the indignant river.

You are the assignment. No student to be seen.

‘But then he returned to his work as though nothing had happened.’ We are familiar with this kind of remark from any number of old tales, even though it may not be found in any of them.

You can withdraw from the sufferings of the world — that possibility is open to you and accords with your nature — but perhaps that withdrawal is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.

“Why then do you fear love in particular more than earthly existence in general?” It’s as if you had said: “Why not fear every bush in the same way that you fear the burning bush?”

In a struggle between you and the world, bet on the world.

What is more joyful than belief in a household god?

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Today's Place to Daydream about: Siena

Siena is the second city of Tuscany, a status that led to a centuries-long struggle to maintain their independence against Florence. The Sienese imagine themselves in much the way Florentines do, as lovers of art and beauty lifted above cruder people by their refined sense of style.

In fact this preoccupation was written into the city's constitution of 1309:
Whoever rules the city must have the beauty of the city as his foremost preoccupation, and in fact our city must be honorably decorated and its buildings carefully preserved and improved, because it must provide pride, honor, wealth, and growth to the Sienese citizens, as well as pleasure and happiness to visitors from abroad. 

The city is an ancient place, dating at least to Etruscan times. Later on they said it was founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome, and they made the she-wolf who suckled the founding twins one of their emblems. 

The central plaza still overlies the Roman forum. Siena was not a great place under the Romans, since it was somewhat isolated in a group of rocky hills. But that location proved a boon during the violent centuries that followed the empire's collapse. Records of the place become common after the Frankish conquest of 774, when a count and other Frankish nobles set up residence there.

Siena became an independent Republic in the twelfth century and mostly kept that status down to 1555, when it was defeated by the Spanish and Florentines and incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. 

The city reached its peak of political power during the rule of the Council of Nine, between 1287 and 1355. This was a complicated arrangement in which power was shared among the leading families and the main craft guilds. The Nine built the Palazzo Pubblico with its famous tower, which still houses the municipal administration.

They also built the great cathedral; I have a whole post on it here if you want to see more of it. Now that I understand better the demographic arc of European histoy, this makes sense. Europe reached an economic and demographic nadir in the 900s, before embarking on centuries of growth that reached a peak in 1275 to 1348 (depending on the region). In the north, growth was ended by the onset of the Little Ice Age in the late 1200s, but in the Mediterranean growth may have contined into the 1300s before the Black Death brought everything crashing down. Siena reach a peak of population around 1310, at 50,000, that it would not reach again until the 1700s. So if you ever wondered why Europe has so many cathedrals built between 1200 and 1348, there is your answer: that's when they had the money and people to do it.

Siena is of course full of art; this is the bishop's library, attached to the cathedral. Among the painters who worked on this was the young Raphael.

One of the most famous works in this city is Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegories of Good and Bad Government, painted in 1338-1339. This ancient view of government still has power in our own time, a deep belief that when the rulers are good, things will be good in the land.

The big annual event in Siena, their equivalent of Carnival in Venice, is the Palio, a horse race in which the competitors are sponsored by old neighborhood associations. It is held in the center of town, in the main plaza. 

It's cold in Catonsville, and winter dark is already falling. So let me cast my mind to Italy, to Siena, to imagine the crowd, the sun, the horses, the brilliant banners, the delight that something so old and simple still brings pleasure to thousands, in a city where beauty is an obsession.

Sex Abuse in the Baltimore Diocese; Or, What Secrets is the World Hiding?

The state of Maryland has finally completed their report on sex abuse in the diocese of Baltimore, the oldest in the United States. The full report hasn't been made public yet, but details laid out by the investigators in a press conference yesterday were pretty grim. NY Times:

The filing says the Archdiocese failed to report many allegations of “sexual abuse and physical torture” and neglected to remove accused priests from active ministry or even restrict their access to children. Some congregations and schools had more than one abusive priest there at the same time. “The sexual abuse was so pervasive that victims were sometimes reporting sexual abuse to priests who were perpetrators themselves,” the filing states. One congregation was assigned 11 abusers over 40 years. . . .

The report identifies 115 priests who have already been prosecuted for sex abuse or identified publicly by the Archdiocese. Another 43 have not previously been identified publicly. Of those newly identified priests, 30 have died, indicating that 13 newly accused priests are still alive.

Mr. Frosh said many of the instances of abuse would have been categorized as misdemeanors at the time they were committed, which means the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution has expired. He said most of the claims in the report are clustered in the 1970s and 1980s, with some before and after.

Ok, we all know this story by now. But for me, every detail we learn about sex abuse in the church over the 1965 to 1990 period raises more questions about the world as a whole.

First, when did this start? Many conservative Catholics believe that while there was always some sexual abuse in the church, the epidemic that has torn the church apart is a modern, post-Vatican II phenomenon. In other words this started outside the church, with the sexual revolution and the rise of gay rights. I doubt this is true, but we really don't know. The Maryland report, like the Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, and Boston reports before it, documents mainly events from the 1965 to 1990 period. I suspect that is an accident of timing, having to do with the age of the victims when the scandal broke, but I can't be certain. 

Maybe sexual repression really was more effective in the Olden Days. I have listened to at least two interviews, young people interviewing old people who grew up before World War II, where this came up. The young people were amazed that the oldsters actually never had sex until marriage, and the oldsters were bemused to be questioned on this. Not, of course, that everyone waited until marriage, but I feel quite certain that millions of people did. So maybe more priests really did stick to their vows back then.

I fear that the question of how much sex abuse there was in the church before 1965 is unanswerable. 

And the same as regards the bigger question: how much sexual abuse of children was there in the world?

A lot, I suspect. We know that whores as young as 12 could be had in every city, and that rakes like Casanova made no secret of their preference for girls. Sexual interest in boys inspired thousands of erotic poems across Asia. In a world where many people were losing teeth by 25, it was a cliche that feminine beauty was a fading flower. "The season of girls is short," says a character in Lysistrata, a comedy by the ancient Greek playwrite Aristophanes, pleading for the war to end before a generation of girls misses their chance to marry. Greek girls married young, so the question comes up in a different form in northern Europe, where most people married in their 20s. You might think that surely they were having plenty of sex before then, but so far as we can tell rates of illegitimate birth were low.

What about closer to our time, in the Victorian world of starched collars and whalebone corsets? Despite 150 years or prurient curiosity, we just don't know, because most people resolutely refused to talk or write about it. One part of me wants to say, sexual desire is universal, and if any society pretended to have it under control, that was pure hypocrisy. But that is just my prejudice, based on no very good evidence. Many nineteenth-century people saw their world divided into night and day worlds; in the sunshine world of married families, morality was strong, with vice mostly crowded into the nighttime world of big city gangsters and whores. Maybe they were right, although I doubt it.

I look at world of 1850 to 1950 and wonder; how different was their behavior from ours, really? Were things really better? Or did the tougher standards on sexual behavior just mean that everything was more thoroughly hidden, not even whispered about? Freud famously had so many female patients report being sexually abused that he decided they must be making it up; even an observer as perceptive and cynical as Freud had no idea so much abuse was going on all around him in respectable Viennese society.

I believe Freud's patients were telling the truth, and that their confessions open a window into what the allegedly moralistic nineteenth-century world was like: shameful crimes in abundance, but hushed up by a grim wall of silent propriety.

But I really don't know.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Ingrid Rojas Contreras, "The Man who Could Move Clouds: a Memoir" (2022)

This magical book carried me far away to places strange and wonderful and sad. I lost myself in its pages, and am not so happy to have found myself again at the end. I may go back when I am done writing this, to see if I can start again at the beginning and disappear once more.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras was born in Colombia in a time of unending violence. Her grandfather was a curandero, and word that, depending on how you say it, can mean either "healer" or "witch." Because of the word's dark associations, his business cards said "Homeopath." He could heal the sick, move clouds to bring rain or stop it, and speak with the dead. He was a famous local character, and people left pleas for help at his grave for decades after he had died.

According to tradition, the grandfather should have passed his secrets on to one of his sons. But his sons, he found, were not worthy; they were too weak, too fearful of ghosts. The child most like him was his daughter, Rojas Contreras' mother. But the tradition forbade teaching the secrets to women, and despite her pleas he would not break that law. Yet she found her own path to a kind of spirit wisdom. After she fell down a well and nearly died, she could see and hear ghosts, and became what I would call a medium. For years she supported her family by counseling clients about their spiritual problems and selling bottles of water that she had infused with prayers. She married an educated man, a scientific skeptic, and he eventually found a job working in the oil industry. Their children grew up in a confused, in-between world, with a mother who talked to ghosts and a father who didn't believe in them, educated in western history and literature but feeling more at home in the stories of ghosts and crazy relatives they heard in the village where they were born.

Eventually the family learns that the father has been put on a list of people the rebels intend to kidnap, and they flee Colombia for Venezuela. They wander South America for years, sometimes living with their father, sometimes apart from him. Two daughters win scholarships to study in America, and their story becomes even more scattered and divided, moving back and forth between continents.

Which is how Ingrid ends up in Chicago, where she has a bicycle accident and lands on her head, plunging her into a strange sort of amnesia. She experiences this forgetting as a burst of freedom, and from this crisis she obains her own power, and becomes a writer. As with her mother, a brush with death unlocked her gifts.

I have no idea what to make of this story. I don't doubt that Rojas Contreras suffered some kind of brain injury, but its effects are hard to disentangle from her long-term mental health struggles. I suspect she is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. She tells crazy stories about, for example, the time her family kept a huge anaconda for a pet, until it had eaten all their chickens and had to be got rid of. Her family is a mess of alcoholism, depression, anxiety, morbid fear of ghosts, suicide, and sundry other mental problems. Rojas Contreras has her own share: anorexia, panic attacks, self harm. 

Through all of this, and much more I have not mentioned, her family remains a family, always trying to be strong for each other, always finding some way to get by. And while they are crazy, they are also wonderful. They are brave, funny, always ready with a joke or a story, and full of lore about herbs, incantations, and spirits. They know hundreds of stories, and love to tell them. Rojas Contreras has found a way to mix the elixir of curandismo and village ghost stories with the wine of literature, and the result is a magic potion of words. This is the best book I have read this year, and it might be the best book I have read in a decade.

*          *          *

The scholar in me, though, has some stuff to say. Rojas Contreras sometimes describes her mestizo heritage as a curse, begun when the conquerors raped Native women, leaving their descendants barred from the white world but torn away from their own heritage. But what is wonderful in this book is precisely the mestizo-ness, the mingling of minds and cultures. Our narrator is a graduate of an American university, I suppose with a degree in literature, a close reader of Jane Austen and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Because she straddles two worlds, she can weave a story that no citizen of one or the other could tell. A memoir like this is no part of anybody's traditional culture, but a creation of refined civilizations. Because Rojas Contreras has been given the secrets of this lore, she can write a book that brings her crazy, magical family to magnificent life.

Incidentally one of the great insights here into "traditional culture" is that it consists, not of unquestioned truths, but of unending debate. Within Rojas Contreras' family people argue constantly over whether curses are real – her mother the medium denies it – what are the powers of ghosts, and even whether particular beings they see are ghosts or strangers. Part of what makes the book great is that we see all these things through the eyes of a whole family of highly argumentative people, seeing much more clearly what this lore means than we would from a recitation of beliefs.

I could go on for hours like this, because the richness of this book struck so many chords in me, but let me get back to the topic at hand. 

Rojas Contreras finds the root of her family's woes in colonialism: in their poverty, in the unending violence, in their vast loss of heritage. This does not overwhelm the story, but it is part of the world view, and I suspect it helped the book to get a National Book Awards nomination. But coming to the story as I did, steeped in Euopean lore, I could not help but notice that the tradition of Bucaramanga's curanderos is at least as much European as native. For example they have a whole lore of treasure hunting, using iron divining rods and looking for mysterious lights on the ground, along with incantations to protect them from guardian spirits. These passages could have been copied verbatim from a book of European folklore. Some of the stories they tell have more to do with ancient Greek myth than anything of pre-Columbian America: snakes in cribs, spirit tempresses that lure men to watery graves. In fact one gaping hole in Rojas Contreras' education seems to be anthropology; all she knows of Native culture, or what she thinks of as Native culture, is the stories of her Spanish-speaking, mixed race family. She doesn't seem to have ever met a traditional Indian, and I guess nobody ever assigned her the Popol Vuh or Black Elk Speaks. She tries to get glimpses of the Native past from details like the names of rivers, but can only imagine the lost world that lay behind those tiny cracks in the wall of forgetting.

When someone like Rojas Contreras denounces imperialism and white culture, I find myself asking where this leaves the speaker. The words, whether Spanish or English, are European; the ways of thinking, writing, and understanding are European. The political, racial analysis that underlies the rage is European. A good portion of the speaker's genes are European, and maybe it should be mentioned that the reason there are so many more people of Indian ancestry in Spanish America than in el Norte is precisely because of the genetic mixing, which passed to mestizos a much greater resistance to European diseases.

Maybe that is the complaint, that there is pretty much nothing in the world that is not infected with European words and ideas. But to wish that away is, for a Colombian novelist and memoirist, to wish away yourself.

Given the pain she has endured, maybe Rojas Contreras would find that appealing. But for me, as a reader, it is the collision of worlds that is most wonderful to behold. I have read many actual Native stories, and none of them are as magical to me as The Man Who Could Move Clouds.

Yes, there is suffering. Colonization was a terrible event, and Rojas Contreras has endured great personal pain. And yet here we are, with a truly wonderful book that could have come into the world in no other way.

Rojas Contreras' mother tells her, describing her spiritual consulting practice, 

The biggest thing I have learned all these years is that nobody wants the truth, but everyone wants a story.

What remains? Rojas Contreras asks herself, after an old book turns to dust in her hands:

The person who escapes.
The mind that forgets itself.
The culture that is thought to be erased.
The answer is everything.
Everything survives.